Food for thought

29th May 2019

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The Lancet Commission on Obesity's recent reports call for restraints on the power of 'Big Food' and a revolution in agricultural and dietary habits, as Elisabeth Jeffries explains

Large food producers are potentially as harmful to health as tobacco companies, according to recently published investigations produced by the Lancet Commission on Obesity, an international group of scientists, researchers and doctors. The studies – The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change and Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems – could have far-reaching effects on agricultural and environmental policies if their recommendations were implemented. They attack the food production industry and call for a radical change to diets.

Unsurprisingly, the experts promote healthy food. They also state that food items such as energy-dense snacks, confectionery and sugary drinks share commonalities with tobacco through the “damage they induce and behaviours of the corporations that profit from them“.

Global food treaties

“Big Food's ability to influence decision-making is distorting food supply“

In The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change, the Lancet Commission calls for a global 'Framework Convention on Food Systems'. This would act in a similar way to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which came into effect in 2005. That supranational agreement, which excludes tobacco companies from negotiations, seeks to protect people from the consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.

The food treaty would limit the political influence of 'Big Food' in the same way. It would reduce what the Lancet Commission calls the “power asymmetries“ created by Big Food and ensure comprehensive action. The Commission suggests that the creation of such a treaty would protect the health of populations by restricting lobbying among food companies.

“Food companies should not have access to the forum where policy decisions are made,“ says Tim Lobstein, an author of the report and policy director for the World Obesity Federation – a worldwide membership organisation that represents health professionals and patients. “Their ability to influence decision-making is distorting food supply while smaller food producers are not present.“

Big Food influence

Health professionals investigating major food manufacturers have found evidence of behind-the-scenes lobbying that they believe obstructs regulatory or trade measures promoting healthy eating.

“The most obvious examples in recent years have been the huge investment that sugary drinks companies, chiefly Coca Cola and Pepsi, and the business associations they fund, have made in trying to prevent taxes on sugary drinks wherever they raise their head,“ says commission co-chair Professor Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Activities he cites generally include direct bribes to politicians as well as more subtle activities such as sports events sponsorships, science funding to show the benefits of exercise, the formation of false grassroots groups and payment of existing groups to oppose taxes and other fiscal or trade instruments.

Laggard advantages

For commercial reasons, food companies are not motivated to produce healthy food and drink. “High fat and salt content are cheap, palatable and easy to sell to children, so promotional restrictions affect margins and raise costs,“ says Jane Landon, health specialist at Eating Better, an advocacy alliance of more than 50 organisations. “They don't want to reformulate so as not to get ahead of public taste. Until laggards catch up, the leading companies are at competitive disadvantage.“

Products with a long shelf life, such as crisps, offer higher margins and profitability than, for example, a bag of potatoes. The high profits give companies the funding to advertise them, creating a feedback loop of consumption and profit. “If society sets up the food system as it does, with only profit as the driver and with zero consequences for a company that creates health and environmental damage, then we get the inevitable outcomes from the food system that we see,“ says Swinburn.

Transforming food systems

Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems proposes a vision for sustainable food production and accompanying policies. Recognising that many parts of the world are inadequately nourished, and environmental processes are pushed beyond safe boundaries by food production, this report urges a global transformation of the food system.

To rectify the problem and introduce widespread healthy eating and sustainable agriculture, the authors recommend a diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, unsaturated oils and a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry. A healthy diet would exclude or contain a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains and starchy vegetables.

Farming overhaul

Moving to healthier foods would require a major shift in agricultural systems and incentives, amounting to an “agricultural revolution that is based on sustainable intensification and driven by sustainability and system innovation“. For example, the study indicates it would require at least a 75% reduction in yield gaps for farmers. This is the difference between a crop's maximum potential yield and its real yield. On average, soy and wheat produce less than 50% of their maximum potential yield.

It would also mean global redistribution of nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser use, phosphorus recycling, and radical improvements to the efficiency of fertiliser and water use. A rapid implementation of agricultural mitigation options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adoption of land management practices that shift agriculture from a carbon source to sink, and a fundamental shift in production priorities would also be needed. Finally, the vision incorporates climate mitigation options, including changes in crop and feed management and enhanced crop diversity and biodiversity within agricultural systems.

Price hikes and subsidies

The EU Common Agricultural Policy would have to be abolished. “What does the US Farm Bill or the EU Common Agricultural Policy privilege with its subsidies? It isn't the fruit and vegetables or nuts and legumes which we need for a healthy sustainable diet,“ points out Boyd Swinburn. Instead, these policies encourage monoculture cropping (mainly for animal feed or commodities to create highly processed foods) or beef and dairy farming.

As a result, food prices would probably rise, because they need to fully reflect the true cost of food. Subsidies on fertilisers, water, fuels, electricity and pesticides need to be critically reviewed and possibly removed, while prices should reflect environmental and societal health costs of food supply and consumption, through the introduction of taxes. This would mean the application of social protection or safety nets for more vulnerable populations.

Unsurprisingly, responding to the report, many agricultural organisations defend meat production in particular. The National Farmers Union, for instance, draws attention to scientific findings that show red meat plays a “vital role“ in a balanced diet. “It is overly simplistic to target one food group for a significant reduction in consumption and it ignores its medically accepted role as a key part of a healthy, balanced diet,“ the organisation says. It also describes the British livestock industry as one of the most efficient in the world, with 65% of UK farmland highly suitable for grass production over other crops. “The UK is well placed to produce food from sustainable livestock grazing systems. Grassland is a very good store of carbon, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.“

A wholesale shift

Our current agricultural system makes sustainable and healthy diets harder to achieve; sweeping changes are required in order to make it fit for purpose

  • 75% reduction in yield gaps is required to deliver a move to healthier food
  • 50% Soy and wheat produce less than 50% of their potential yield
  • 65% of UK farmland is suitable for grass production over other crops

Elisabeth Jeffries is a freelance journalist.

Image credit: iStock

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