Is the supposed obesity epidemic in danger of overshadowing genuinely weighty issues such as climate change and food security?
This is the question many food and drink experts are asking in the wake of obesity-focused media coverage following last week's publication of a report on food trends by the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit.
The report's section on diet and health comprised just 15 of the document's 113 pages. Yet the media chose to focus almost entirely on the content of those 15 pages. 'Sexy' statistics included the 70,000 premature deaths that could be prevented annually if diets followed nutritional guidelines, and the fact that children were typically eating only two-and-a-half portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Meanwhile the real elephant in the corner was ignored. A broader reading of the report, which examined food production and consumption trends, reveals a range of arguably more serious challenges facing government and industry in 2008. Chief among these are food security and climate change.
The report, which outlines key policy priorities for government, stresses the importance of being able to produce enough food to meet growing consumer demand. Developing countries are expected to increase their food consumption sharply, it points out, yet pressures on production are also increasing. Climate change could render 50% of the world's arable land unusable by 2050, it warns.
It doesn't shy away from emotive language. "Food security is caused globally by terrorism and climate change and in the UK by the concentration of power in the supermarkets, the decline in the farming industry and food safety scares," it says. However, it adds: "The real impact of food on the environment is in the growing and production of goods not in their sale by the retailers or in their consumption in households. "
It cites the fact that 6.5m tonnes of waste - 10% of all the UK's industrial and commercial waste - is from the food industry and that the food chain generates 3.2m tonnes of CO2 a year.
The onus is on government to work with industry to tackle the problem, it says. "Food security is essentially a matter of identifying, assessing and managing the risk to food supply. Intervention may be required."
Threats to food security must not be underestimated, says NFU president Peter Kendall, who has called on the government to provide more resources to help farmers. "If we are expected to produce more and improve our environmental performance at the same time - and we should be expected to do that - it will require technology and investment, and a coherent government policy," he says.
It's time the government got its priorities straight, adds Professor Triall of Reading University's Department for Agriculture and Food Economics. "The report includes statistics that show the death rate related to diet has fallen over the past 20 years, while obesity rates have risen. This alone raises questions over the emphasis given to the obesity debate," he says. "It is imperative that the government uses this report as a springboard to better understand what other areas need attention."
The Strategy Unit has plenty to chew over as it pulls together its list of recommendations for the government. "I hope the Strategy Unit will be brave in tackling some of the structural issues at the heart of government," says Melanie Leech, director general of the Food and Drink Federation. n