Food…Glorious Food?

‘Our freedom to choose one bundle of commodities rather than another may have an important effect on the living standards we can have, the happiness we can enjoy, the well-being we can achieve…The perspective of freedom, with its diverse elements, is much too important to be neglected in the making of food policy.’ Amartya Sen,1987.

Capewell 2015 10 corporations food

I was fortunate enough to attend Public Health Scotland’s annual conference last week, ‘Securing Scotland’s Health.’ I was really impressed by the attendees’ passion for the fight against health inequalities to secure a better future for all of Scotland’s residents. For me, this commitment to the cause was summarised best in Professor Simon Capewell’s plenary session entitled ‘Securing Scotland’s Health by Pills or Policies?’

Professor Capewell is an epidemiology expert from the University of Liverpool. His central proposition is that there are things that impact negatively on our health which we as individuals cannot control and for those things policy change is the best solution. Amongst his examples of past public health policy successes were mandatory seat belts, tobacco sales and smoking bans. Minimum price for alcohol might be a future success, but is currently being fought in the European courts by the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA). The SWA claims the robust academic evidence that minimum pricing works is flawed, a tactic Capewell claims was used by the tobacco industry and is now increasingly adopted by the food industry. Green MSP Patrick Harvie has also recently accused the drink industry lobbyists of mirroring tactics used by the tobacco lobby to fight what he calls ‘life-saving legislation.’

Professor Capewell is particularly concerned about how widely and effectively industries can fight health policy. He ran through some worrying facts about the food industry, including that most of the food in a packet that we buy in the supermarket originates from one of only 10 huge multinational organisations (see picture above). Pepsico alone has a global annual turnover of over $65billion, greater than the individual GDP of over 100 countries. Professor Capewell argued that these companies are very powerful, and hence their tactics to undermine strong research evidence and influence governments through lobbying can be particularly destructive to the common good. The food industry matters greatly to public health. Across the conference it was shown that diet-related deaths are higher than alcohol and tobacco-related deaths combined, and that diabetes has more than doubled in males in areas of highest deprivation.

But thankfully all is not lost. In her blog for the Guardian last year, Ilana Taub stated social enterprises are making a difference throughout the food cycle in the UK, and evidenced her statement with examples of social enterprises growing food, distributing food, making & eating food together, and dealing with food waste. Taub believes social enterprise is making the food system in the UK more socially just, and highlights the importance of food not only as source of good health but also as a social process which creates bonds between people. Such intangible community bonds are embedded in our relationship with food and our cultural & social traditions, most of which revolve around locally-produced in-season or easily stored crops. For example, St Andrew’s Day is almost upon us and many of us will sit down to haggis, neeps and tatties, whilst in the USA Thanksgiving celebrations will see families and communities come together to eat a traditional meal.

Fortunately for us, social enterprise in Scotland has embraced the challenge of ensuring locally grown food is available in some deprived communities and many continue to preserve the intangible social value of food through their activities. So perhaps on St Andrews Day we should raise a glass to the Scottish Community Food Social Enterprise Network, and thank them for playing their part in ‘Securing Scotland’s Health.’

Picture Source: Capewell, S (2015) Securing Scotland’s Health by Pills or Policies? Presentation at Faculty of Public Health Conference Securing Scotland’s Health, 5 – 6 November 2015, Peebles Hydro.