Britain has one of the worst obesity problems in the world with millions of people eating unhealthy, readymade meals shipped from the Far East. At the same time, homegrown crops are wasted, leaving British farmers destitute. Giles Crosse reports
Obesity and diabetes are worldwide problems stemming from the prevalence of bad processed foods containing excessive sugars and fats. The problem is especially deep-rooted in the UK, which has one of the world’s most dysfunctional food systems.
Dan Crossley, Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council, said: “It is a scandal that in a world where we produce more food than we need, hundreds of millions of people are going to bed hungry at night, and even more are suffering from diet-related diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes that give the lie to ‘cheap’ food.”
Crossley was speaking in reaction to a major new report from 12 NGOs, including Compassion in World Farming, about the illogicality and waste inherent in global food production. The ‘Square Meal’ report reveals that in the UK, a third of under-18s are overweight, or obese. The processed foods that cause this unhealthy epidemic have become 12% more expensive over the past six years. The public is increasingly buying not just bad food, but bad overpriced food.
This absurd food system is full of paradoxes. A third of people are eating too much unhealthy food, while many more are starving. The UK, like many Western nations, has high levels of food poverty and food banks are increasingly common. The Trussell Trust alone handed out more than 900,000 three-day supplies of emergency food last year.
Future shocks to food systems from climate change, rising populations and dwindling resources will make food even more expensive. “The evidence of food’s impact on health is overwhelming, but not enough questions are being asked about whether UK food and farming industries are part of this problem,” said Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London and Chair of the Food Research Collaboration.
Lang says the UK grows pitifully small amounts of fruit and vegetables, when its shops could sell mountains of home-grown fresh produce.“What would the UK food system look like if it was designed around health and ecosystems, not just economics?” he asks. He imagines a new world where vested interests in profit do not undermine healthy eating.
What’s wrong with UK food economics?
Michael Gidney, Chief Executive, Fairtrade Foundation, says that unfair trading practices, abuse of supply chain power and devaluation of food and farming are to blame. Food sourced from Asia or South America is governed by fewer laws, hence it is cheaper. This is the meat you will find in ready meals, or pre-packed sandwiches. It is full of salt, chemicals and preservatives.
Big firms ship such produce into the UK and EU, emitting unnecessary carbon during transport. They bypass the environmental laws that make homegrown food pricier to produce. They are given market advantages that allow them to sell imported food to richer developed markets. Meanwhile, they pay poor wages to overseas suppliers, working under no health and safety legislation. Recent investigations show UK supermarkets cannot even prove that workers supplying prawns from Thailand get paid anything at all.
If given a chance, smaller British businesses could supply more nutritious local food, with far fewer embedded carbon costs. But they have less capital to cope with complex EU and UK food regulations. The system punishes them. These global market failures are making unsustainable and unhealthy food popular at the till. Coupled with powerful investor interests along the food chain, weak self-regulatory initiatives do not solve things.
Addressing market failures and reframing markets
The UK spends more than £3.26 billion a year on subsidising the farming sector. But this expenditure props up a faulty agricultural system. It is supposed to provide cheap, healthy food but it actually leads to increases in costs to taxpayers. Not enough homegrown, subsidised food reaches supermarket shelves.
The debate is complex. Supermarkets cannot be forced, under EU market law, to buy local food over foreign alternatives. Most of the world’s agriculture chains are dominated by massive companies. Some of these have negatively engineered markets to their benefit. But the Square Meal report says regulators must force the multinationals to change their policies. Banning cheap food imports is illegal right now. But without such a measure, reshaping UK and world food chains will be tough.
The know-how exists to feed the world healthily and sustainably. Local markets and businesses are key to this. There is no logic to buying cheap Thai meat from underpaid, ill-treated workers, then shipping it across the world to the UK.
No logic save one: profit. The consequences of this global system for UK agricultural production are evident from the figures. UK total milk production in 1996 was 13.9 billion litres, falling to 13.1 billion in 2010. Total cereal production of 24.59 million tonnes fell to 20.94 million over the same period, while potatoes declined from 7.251 to 6.04 million tonnes. Cattle numbers declined from 12 to 10 million, sheep from 42 to 31 million, and pigs from 7.5 to 4.5 million.
The area of land devoted to agriculture remains broadly unchanged, while UK farming receives almost £3 billion every year in subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU. Yes, the output of the system is sadly restrictive.