Our economy is geared towards making us sick, according to speakers at the Big Food Debate in Liverpool. The roots lie in the war and post-war years when the population was urged to eat more meat, butter and sugar and the farming industry was supported to grow, grow and grow.
Academics in nutrition, public health and food industry professionals met here to discuss what was wrong with our current food production and consumption.
There have been two major messages to take away.
- Robin Ireland, Heart of Mersey chief executive argued that food campaigners have to learn from the anti-smoking lobby and push for national reforms like the smoke-free legislation or the vote last week to ban point-of-sale displays and vending machines.
- Professor Philip James, International Obesity Task Force Chair, felt obesity was akin to climate change. Responsibility could not be put on the individual alone, that was just not enough anymore. We needed to change our toxic environment – food chain, transport infrastructure, urban design, animal and agriculture industry – through wholesale strategic measures.
We clearly need to create a new food chain that benefits people, not just the food industry. Too much to ask? Not really, according to Professor Simon Capewell (Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Liverpool University and Chair of FPH Cardiovascular Committee) who pointed out that the UK is lagging behind other countries and asked why we cannot use legislation to ban the stuff in our food that’s making us so sick – trans fats, salt and saturated fats. However, Professor Jack Winkler (Director of Nutrition Policy Unit at London Metropolitan University) argued for incremental changes. He called the FSA’s salt reduction policy the single most successful nutrition policy since the Second World War, exactly because it has been so unobstrusive and incremental. Professor Philip James said it was necessary to work with the food industry because they had the power to transform the food we choose to eat
Whatever the view, more must be done or we have a very real obesity epidemic in our hands; not to mention climate chaos because the way in which food is produced and consumed is inextricably linked with the environment.
Amidst the doom and gloom were positive examples: take the Netherlands which has redesigned its cities to enable easy cycling and walking, transforming the health profile of its population. In the Caribbean, obesity (and public health) is recognised as a cross-government responsibility, not just one for the health ministry.
But some englightened initiatives were to be found closer to home. Last night at a lovely Italian restaurant in Liverpool’s Albert Dock, we were amazed to find a healthy eating guide attached to the menu, showing the dishes that are good energy boosters, the ones perfect for your daily dose of vitamins and so on. And this morning, at our hotel, there was a menu card explaining the ‘superfood’ options available at the breakfast buffet. We’d certainly never seen anything like it in London (apart from in an organic juice cafe perhaps…).
But as it stands, we’re eating ourselves sick and while we’re at it, devouring the health of the planet as well.