If we’re going to make real changes in the food system, we have to get involved and get political.
Marion Nestle, author and scholar, Melbourne, February 2016
Marion Nestle is an eminent and widely respected scholar in the fields of nutrition, food studies, public health and sociology, at New York University and Cornell. She is the author of nine books, including the highly influential Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002), and most recently Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and winning).
Marion has been in Australia for the past month on sabbatical, at the Charles Perkins Centre at Sydney University. She has a long-standing research interest in documenting and exposing the power of big food companies to influence food policy, dietary guidelines, and consumer food and beverage choices and behaviour, with a particular focus on the role of marketing and advertising. Her current research interests include analysing and revealing the ways in which food industry companies fund and influence academic nutrition and public health research: see http://www.foodpolitics.com/.
Marion was in Melbourne during the week of 22-26 February. On 22nd February she was at Deakin University, where she was part of a panel discussing Current and Future Priorities for Food Policy, along with Professor Martin Caraher (City University, London), Professor Monique Raats (University of Surrey), and Professor Mark Lawrence (Deakin University). On 24th February, she gave a public lecture at Melbourne University, to discuss and promote her new book, Soda Politics.
At the Deakin forum, Marion gave a brief overview of the major changes in the food system that, in her view, have shaped the obesogenic environment, and driven the more than doubling in the rate of obesity in the United States since 1980 across the adult population as a whole, to 35%, and a more than trebling the rate of childhood obesity, to 17%. On current projections, according to Marion, obesity levels are projected to reach 50% of the entire US adult population by 2050.
Marion pointed to the confluence of three major factors:
- the big shift in US farm policy in the 1970s, under the leadership of Earl Butz at the US Department of Agriculture, which saw a huge increase in the acreage devoted to corn and soy, which in turn laid the foundations for the creation of the now-infamous, and ubiquitous, Fast Food Nation. Per capita, the US now has available 4000 calories per day, compared to 3200 calories per day between 1910-1980. For this reason, Nestle is very sceptical about claims (often propounded by the food industry) that the lack of exercise is the main causal factor behind the steep rise in obesity, rather than the consumption of too much food of the wrong type
- the so-called ‘shareholder revolution‘ of the early 1980s, which saw a major reorientation in corporate governance priorities, away from investment and serving a range of stakeholders (employees, customers and communities) and towards ‘maximisation of shareholder value’ in the short-term above all else. What this meant for food companies, Nestle said, was a sharp increase in competitive pressure to increase profits
- that in turn led to a big increase in the amount food companies spent on advertising, which exceeded $US17 billion in 2013, on junk food alone, much of it aimed at children, who now are responsible for $US40 bn of food spending, either directly or by influencing their parents’ shopping decisions. Coca Cola, in 2012 spent $US202 mn on one product alone: Classic Coke.
Agricultural policy in the US, Nestle says, is all about ‘getting people to eat more. It’s not linked in any way to health policy.’ Fast food and snack food is ubiquitous throughout the retail environment, including in shops that are not food or grocery shops. ‘In the environment’, says Nestle, ‘eating less and better is hard for individuals to do. The goals of industry and health policy are disparate.’
There is good news, however. The food and health movement in the United States has, through persistence and organisation and mobilisation, succeeded in slowing down, and putting into reverse, the sales of soft drinks (soda) over the past decade. In 2014, the City of Berkeley became the first municipality to impose a mandatory ‘soda tax’ and health warning on soda drinks.
At the national level, the challenges remain profound. Marion recounted how, during 2014-2015 in the revision of the National Dietary Guidelines, the Dietary Committee, comprised of many eminent experts in the fields of public health and nutrition, explicitly linked excessive meat-eating to health and environmental problems, and recommended the Guidelines be revised accordingly. Meat industry lobby groups responded vigorously, and any mention of sustainability considerations linked to the livestock industry was removed from the updated Dietary Guidelines, which came out at the end of 2015.
Meanwhile, the multi-billion dollar US farm bill continues to devote the lion’s share of subsidies, 61%, to the continued over-production of corns, soy and other grains, much of it destined for animal feed in factory farms. 19% goes to subsidise the production of oils, a considerable portion of which also goes to animal feed. A paltry 0.45% goes to support the production of fruit and vegetables.
What’s required, as all speakers, concluded, is sustained mobilisation and political action. It’s good to ‘vote with your fork’, and make conscious food choices, but it won’t be enough to transform the system in the ways required to tackle the inter-linked crises of obesity, food insecurity, climate change and declining viability of farmers and rural and regional communities. Marion’s parting words of advice to the Australian healthy, fair and sustainable food movement were memorable:
You’re making great progress. Cause trouble. Take action. Keep going!