Last month I was locked in a castle in Germany with 20 people debating the future of nutrition and food policies. Voluntarily, I hasten to add. The seminar is timely. It’s not just in Britain that the political temperature has risen in recent months. Here, many caterers were surprised (and hurt) by the fury of reaction to the Jamie Oliver programmes. I wasn’t, as there has been bubbling discontent for a quarter of a century over political failure to protect children’s diets from predatory behaviour. Nutrition standards were abolished, remember, in 1980. Schools became champions of the self-service culture.
The issue goes wider than school food. For decades, evidence of the health and social costs of shifts in diet and lifestyles has been building up. Yet there was resistance to doing anything about it. I mean by governments and society, not just the food-supply chain. Everyone knew, but they ignored the evidence.
Ideology intervened - ‘It’s a matter for individual choice’ or ‘It’s up to parents’. For years, there has been simmering parental discontent about children’s food advertising, but the policy response was mainly to protect advertisers’ rights, enshrined in the EU Television Without Frontiers directive.
This missed the philosophical point. How do we balance industry with human rights? Parents’ rights with children’s? Society’s with individual choice?
Questioning the culture of choice is central to the emerging food politics. Nutritionists are pretty clear that if we just eat what we like, we reap ill-health consequences. Being biologically wired to like fat and sweet things was useful thousands of years ago, but the food-supply revolution has warped the nutritional offer so much that what could be feast-day food is everyday food. This also has considerable environmental implications.
Education on its own is powerless to alter this warped offer. If farming were to deliver what’s good for human health, we wouldn’t be arguing about whether sugar ought to be grown here in Europe or imported from former colonies that grew it in slavery times. We’d be cutting down on both, and trying to use land to grow food for health. Need, not greed, is the focal point of the new sustainable food policy.
At our globally focused seminar, we debated future scenarios for nutrition. Many
favour the emergence of what I call ecological public health, a merger of environment and nutrition. Eating wisely for health needs to be good for long-term farming and distribution.
The problem is that consumers are in the dark; labels don’t inform on food miles, energy use and other processes. The reigning assumption is that if you are bothered about such matters, it’s up to you: choose brands that fit your concerns. But this is a vicious circle. Lack of knowledge feeds unsustainability. We’re locked into consumerist, not citizen, consumption mode. This might suit some powerful forces, but the backlash when the package is finally exposed can be humiliating.
Ultimately, two business models are emerging. One favours bolting on ‘niches’ as they emerge. A retailer told me a few months ago: “If people want ethical products, we’re not bothered, we’ll do it; they’ll pay for it.”
To this business ethos, issues such as health or the environment are secondary to bottom-line drivers: cost control, markets and contracts.
The other business model favours building ecology and health into not just what the product is, but how the process of delivering it works, too.
It’s not just the future of the supply chain on which the outcome of this conflict will hang. Am I alone in wondering whether the whirlwind that was sown over the school food issue might be reaped elsewhere too?