What yoghurt tells us about the obesity fight

BBC News – Monday 9th May

Both bread and yoghurt – two staple items – really should have just a handful of ingredients. Yoghurt, for example, has two ingredients: milk and natural cultures. Industrialisation, however, brings a range of other ingredients to it – gelatine and starches to make it firmer and seemingly richer, ‘flavourings’ and, of course, sugar and artificial sweeteners. By the end of it all, most of the health benefits of yoghurt have been obliterated. Bread is subject to much the same treatment.

But there is a growing backlash from the bodies that care about health and are concerned about the rising costs of diet-related illness. There are increasing calls for better regulation of what’s in food – for example The Real Bread Campaign has been at the forefront of the call for ‘real bread’ made without the use of processing aids or any other artificial additives – and more restrictions on how unhealthy food is advertised and promoted. The recent proposal for a sugary drinks tax is a step in the right direction in promoting better health but there is much more to be done to change our ‘obesogenic’ culture. Statistics reveal that many of us have a deeply flawed relationship with our food: two-thirds of our calories come from processed foods, while three-quarters of us do not eat enough fruit and vegetables.

With the Government’s obesity strategy finally nearing release, it’s hoped it will kick start real and meaningful change in the nation’s eating habits. As obesity continues to climb ever upwards in Britain, all aspects of the content, marketing and promotion of processed foods must be unpacked with clear consumer information laid bare, better regulation of its advertising and promotion and improved incentives and disincentives on the sale of the healthy and unhealthy products respectively.

Quaker Oats ‘100% natural’ claim questioned in lawsuit

New York Times – Sunday 1st May

The presence of glyphosate in Quaker Oats has generated a class action lawsuit on the legal usage of the word ‘natural’. This is not the first time that the word ‘natural’ has been called into question when applied to food products, but glyphosate provides a new twist on ingredients that might acceptably be defined as such. Quaker Oats claims it has no idea how the endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) got there, but the company acknowledges that it might be because farmers spray it on their crops. That glyphosate was found in the product is a testament to its pervasiveness – expect more such discoveries as the FDA begins testing for it in food products.

It’s high time that the use of the word ‘natural’ in food labelling was rigorously regulated. It’s a profound consumer seduction, even though it has been widely discredited as meaningless. Michael Pollan comments that “Something in the human mind, or heart, seems to need a word of praise for all that humanity hasn’t contaminated, and for us that word now is ‘natural’.” It’s a fulsome promise of purity that we should know better than to trust.

But, hopefully, that’s all about to change. The FDA has suggested that ‘natural’ might be defined by its antithesis as not ‘artificial or synthetic…that [which] would not normally be expected in the food.’ Glyphosate is definitively not a ‘natural’ ingredient in food. While ingredients like ‘ascorbic acid’ might be able to argue a relationship to something ‘natural’ – say oranges – a dangerous herbicide like glyphosate, cited by the WHO as a ‘probable carcinogen’, is really the polar opposite of natural. The current class-action lawsuit should put the question of what’s ‘natural’ firmly to bed.

Spain loses a quarter of farms in ten years

Farming Online – Friday 6th May

The consolidation of agricultural land is a quiet but growing problem. Increasingly, small and mid-scale farms are being subsumed into larger farms or are going out of business. Spain, one of Europe’s biggest food producers, has seen the number of its farms decline by almost a quarter in the last ten years. In Europe as a whole, 3% of farms hold 50% of agricultural land.

The emerging reality of farming in Spain has led to campaigners and farm organisations demanding a more sustainable land-use policy for agriculture in the country. They want a more equitable distribution of access to land for agriculture, one that prioritises things like breaking down the concentration of ownership in the hands of a few and wider community ownership, along with sustainable practices which preserve biodiversity and soil fertility. Concern for these principles is spreading to other countries in Europe. In the UK recently, the Tenant Farmers Association and Land Workers’ Alliance demonstrated against the sell-off of council farms, protesting the sale of “Public food and farming assets regarded as any other commodity to be bought and sold.” As agricultural land increasingly becomes a private asset, often held by individuals and businesses with no agricultural interests, the public’s right to food becomes increasingly precarious – the outcome of which could be disastrous unless the government steps in and regulates how land is bought and sold to support small and medium-scale farming.

Coffee could be ‘drastically affected’ by climate change by end of the century

The Independent – Tuesday 10th May

The declining biodiversity of our agricultural crops is becoming a critical issue in food security. Climate change presents an immense threat to our food because without the range of plant varietals whose genomes have developed according to the specificity of place and environmental conditions, we cease to have adaptable breeds that are resilient and can cope with shifting climatic conditions and extreme weather. Coffee is particularly vulnerable and a new report from Kew Royal Botanical Gardens predicts that one of the world’s favourite drinks could be headed towards extinction by the end of the century.

For coffee drinkers out there, this is devastating news. But it’s also very bad news for the people and places where it’s grown. Land degradation from climate change and intensive farming could make some two-thirds of African coffee production ‘unviable’, with Ethiopia especially hard hit. Agriculture is a huge contributor to the decline of soils and habitats around the globe and this is particularly true in African coffee production. Further, climate change also brings increased numbers of more virulent pathogens, yet another challenge that plants with declining biodiversity will have a harder time facing.

With one in five plants faced with extinction, one thing is certain: our staple food is set to change. We’ve become overdependent on a narrow range of edible crops, and eating within them, a narrow range of varietals. This habit has put many of our most loved foods – along with coffee, chocolate, bananas and wine grapes – on the endangered species list.

Food campaign planned to ease farming’s worst financial crisis since 2000

Plymouth Herald – Tuesday 3rd May

With food commodity prices tumbling, the British dairy industry is on its knees, and the meat industry and other food sectors also suffering significantly, the Government’s Year of British Food aims to give an uplift to flagging domestic sales. Farming really is dire at the moment, and its hard not to be pessimistic about its future in the UK. Farm incomes were down by a third in 2015 and farm profitability is at an all time low – not helped by the on-going cash flow crisis brought about by the Government’s late subsidy payments.

The Year of British Food will be kicked off by the NFU in September with their ‘Back British Farming Day’ and it will include a 12-week promotion of the Red Tractor symbol and a week devoted to pig farming in the ‘British Sausage Week’. It’s a clearly industry-led initiative that gives very little support for sustainable practices. The promotion of the Red Tractor symbol which is the major focus of the programme, guarantees only that the food is British and produced to legal health and hygiene standards: it in no way addresses the animal welfare issues of British farming.

But embedded in the message to buy British is the need for us to stay local (or at least national) in our buying habits and that’s a good thing. But more than a ‘Year of British Food’, what is needed is a fundamental shift in Government policy towards more protection for a sector it claims to prize. Without more support for farm businesses to weather the capricious tricks and turns of the global commodity market, there will be little British food to champion.

Photograph: Juanedc

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