In search of joined-up policy

Tue, 25/07/2023 - 11:17am

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating and depressingly familiar story of how the corporations are selling us highly addictive and life-threatening products, quite legally.

The book describes how addictive substances are dressed up as food but have been crafted by scientists to bypass our natural body mechanisms that regulate our intake of energy so that we just keep on eating.

Independent research is now linking this to heart disease, strokes and early death as well as dementia and inflammatory bowel disease. Almost inevitably this high-energy substance addiction leads to weight gain and, in recent decades, to the exponential increase of obesity and all the disease risks associated with that – type-2 diabetes, metabolic disease, mental illness and even some cancers.

An ultra processed world

Of course, you will have guessed I’m talking about ultra-processed food (UPF), or ‘junk food’. UPF is Big Business. Through extensive processing and trialling of salt, sugar, fat and carb combinations, low value food ingredients have been turned into very morish, added-value products that our natural regulatory systems barely recognise as food. This deception is further aided by the addition of non-food additives like synthetic emulsifiers, sweeteners, flavours, colourings, gums, stabilisers and such like. Because they are so addictive but don’t trigger our ‘full’ meter, we just keep on eating.

As so often happens when there is a lot of money to be made out of human suffering, ‘UPF is connected to deceptive marketing, bogus court cases, secret lobbying and fraudulent research’. This industrialised food system is also closely linked to the industrial farming model and to the damage that is doing to our climate and biodiversity, not to speak of damaging social impacts.

The heavy promotion and addictive nature of UPF has meant it now makes up as much as 60% of the average UK and US diet. In fact, despite over a dozen government food and health strategies and hundreds of wide-ranging policies in this country, rates of obesity in children leaving primary school in the past three decades have increased more than 700% and rates of severe obesity by more than 1600%.

The book I’m quoting from, by the way, is called Ultra Processed People and has been extensively researched and written by TV doctor, Professor Chris van Tulleken. Chris Packham’s brief comment on the cover is, ‘Incendiary and infuriating’. For me it is yet another example of how Big Business runs circles round weak governance in the interests of its shareholders and directors, and at the expense of wider society and the planet.

Speaking up, speaking out

Interestingly, I noticed an article on the Beeb website last night which reported, -

‘An extraordinary edition of The Lancet has pointed the finger of blame at business, in many forms, for selling us products that make us unhealthy and in undermining health services worldwide.

And that raises the question of how much health-polluting business should be expected to pay for so-called 'externalities' - the effects of its behaviour on society, health and environment.’

Getting into The Lancet has raised the stakes. This surely cannot be dismissed or ignored by our policy people. Throwing more and more money at our overwhelmed National Health Service is just dealing with the symptom rather than addressing the underlying drivers of ill health, of which UPF is a big one.

Probably connected was a piece by Sheila Dillon in The Food Programme on Radio 4 (UPF WTF?). In the program she raises many of the points mentioned above. There was no spokesperson available from the government’s Advisory Committee on Nutrition to explain why their advice to government on UPF conflicted with the evidence noted above. She also reported that several members of that committee worked for companies who manufactured UPFs…

It is worth noting that the recent report to government by Henry Dimbleby – The National Food Strategy – mentions UPFs and in an interview he says that companies manufacturing these ‘foods’ almost unanimously sought clear regulatory guidelines from government. No one wanted to be the first to clean up their products as the formulas they used were essential to make their products cheap and addictive, so retaining market share. If everyone had to act at the same time, no one would suffer ‘first mover disadvantage’.

Diet related disease is increasing exponentially, our health service is on its knees and much of the evidence for blame now points to UPFs. It’s time for our leaders to show… leadership. What is the problem?

Déjà vu?

You might remember in my last blog how I described the reaction of several hundred businesspeople at a recent Ellen Macarthur Foundation event in London to the question, ‘How should we best address the challenge of reaching net zero?’ Their almost universal response was, ‘Through legislation.’ Business did not want to pre-empt legislation (unless it clearly saved costs) as that would make them uncompetitive/unpopular and customers would desert. This sentiment was clearly echoed by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) Advisory Group for Business. ‘We’re waiting for Government to set targets and timetables.’

Where does government stand on this? Well, the then CCC chairman, Lord Debden, described government progress on climate change action as, ‘Far from satisfactory’. Indeed, the Minister for Climate and the Environment, Lord Goldsmith, resigned as a result of, ‘this govt’s apathy in the face of the greatest challenge we face.’ With global weather patterns changing as predicted by climate scientists producing unprecedented wildfires and flooding, we look to our leaders for… leadership. What is the problem?

Well, is the problem not partly us? Whenever leaders in a democracy do unpopular things, we vote them out of office. Is not the reaction of farmers in the Netherlands to the threat of compulsory reduction in cattle numbers for environmental pollution reasons a case in point? Or the successful defence of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency by the Conservatives, due to the roll-out of the deeply unpopular environmental programme of Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ) which are blamed on the Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan? I also read today that the Conservatives plan to ‘soften their green policies’. Clearly they see that as a vote winner!

And partly Big Business? For example the lobbying of the New Zealand government by Dairy NZ has delayed the implementation of an environmental tax on cows by over 20 years, and counting. And, of course, the examples of the cigarette, alcohol and oil industries where societal damage was pretty clear well in advance of meaningful action being taken.

So what hope for government action against ‘food’ substances that are cheap, popular and profitable? Our most vulnerable members of society are being fed by public procurement with the cheapest of ingredients. The example of TV chef Jamie Oliver’s attempts to make school meals healthy being undermined by the parents springs to mind.

Wilm and David Finlay with dairy cow

In the real world

At Wilma’s last chemo session she was offered for lunch: (packet) soup and brown bread; a salad sandwich with brown bread in a pack with a barely legible ingredients list as long as your arm; a low fat fruit yogurt which included aspartame, emulsifiers and stabilisers and a fruit juice (which contains the equivalent sugar of standard colas). I place no blame on the NHS staff who we think are great. They have to work within very tight government guidelines on specifications and price, but going by the carefully researched information above, this hospital diet would seem to be making a very bad situation worse.

There is now data that shows that with good diets, children’s cognitive development is significantly helped, sick people can recover much faster, old folk are healthier and prisoners reoffend much less.

In Scotland, we have the opportunity to address so many of the issues facing our society through various Acts and Bills coming through our parliament. Can we achieve some kind of joined-up policy from the Good Food Nation Act, the Circular Economy Bill, the Public Health Promotion Bill, the Natural Environment Bill and the Agriculture Bill?

A joined-up policy that might teach our kids about the preparation, cooking and value of good food.

That facilitates the transition of our farming industry to supply a diversity of high quality, socially and environmentally friendly foods.

That creates a premium market for these quality foods through public procurement partly funded from the agriculture, health and education budgets as well as through UPF taxation.

And by weaving all these policy strands together, make good food accessible to the more vulnerable in our society, regardless of income.

Do our leaders possess that vision and courage? Because business as usual is simply no longer an option.

David Finlay