Doctors urge tax on sugary drinks to fund low-price fruit and vegetables

The IndependentMonday 13th July

A new report by the British Medical Association (BMA) has put the question of a sugar tax back on the table. It suggests that a 20% tax on unhealthy drinks (mistakenly reported as a 20p tax by The Independent) should be levied and the proceeds put towards subsidising the price of fresh fruit and vegetables, which many people, but especially those on lower incomes, don’t eat in sufficient quantities to make up a healthy diet. The disparity between the cost of processed food and that of fresh fruit and vegetables has been increasing and it is now twice as expensive to eat fresh food instead of processed. This is something that must change if Britain is ever to reduce its obesity rates. With 30% of the population projected to be obese (not just overweight) by 2030, changing our eating habits is critical. The article by Ian Fitzpatrick on the SFT website this week explores this urgent issue in more depth.

The BMA’s report, Food for Thought, makes a number of wide-ranging recommendations on how to do this. They include a total ban on the marketing of junk food to children and young people and, more pointedly, a recommendation to keep the food industry out of food and nutrition policy development. This last recommendation is vitally important, though it may be hard to implement: witness the fact that the Food and Drink Federation is strongly opposing the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks. Significantly, the report recognises that involving the food industry in public policy on food and nutrition – where there is a clear conflict of interest – has been misguided at best. And mass-media public health campaigns have produced “limited or negligible public health gains”. As such, taxing sugar has to be one of the ways forward.

Good news is often hard to come by these days, but having the BMA come out with such far-sighted recommendations must surely mark an important moment. And it is in stark contrast to the Association’s attitude in the past. Dr Walter Yellowlees, a founder of the McCarrison Society and longstanding campaigner against processed foods, wrote in his autobiography, A Doctor in the Wilderness, that in 1960 the BMA produced a booklet advising doctors that “plenty of refined sugar was good for children”.

Pacific nations should consider ‘fat tax’ on junk food, says leading doctor

The Guardian – Monday 13th July

The taxation of unhealthy food is of growing interest across the world. In part that’s because obesity is spreading on a global scale: among the most affected are Pacific Islanders. In places like the Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, Samoa and Tonga far more than a third of the population is obese. Eight out of ten of the world’s fattest nations, as ranked by the World Health Organisation, are from the Pacific Islands. As small nations they have few resources and Colin Tukuitonga, director general of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, has commented that the “small fragile health systems in the region just won’t be able to cope”.

The reasons are what you would expect: with globalisation, regional diets are declining and populations of diverse and far-flung nations are discovering processed food. This is combined with increased physical inactivity at home and work, and a younger generation living in a largely digital world. In tackling the problem, there are examples we can learn from including the campaign in many countries against smoking. Taxation on cigarettes has proved a critical measure in this area, as Tukuitonga notes. It has established the relationship between price and consumption – when expense goes up, consumption does in fact come down over time. It may not be a stand-alone measure, but it is definitely a necessary one.

Shoppers prefer low cost food to backing British farms

Farmers Weekly – Sunday 12th July

A new report on UK shopping habits turns up some rather depressing evidence that cheapness still trumps all other concerns when it comes to consumer purchases. The research was carried out by for Barclays, and illustrates a concerning lack of interest in where and how food is produced. Some two thirds of those polled admitted that convenience and cost governed their choice of purchases and less than a quarter gave any mind to where their food was grown and whether it was seasonal.

These responses are a testament to our general disconnection from the source of our food and how hard it is to wean people off cheap products, especially in an era of austerity. Cheap food continues to be a compelling lure for shoppers whatever its origin – as milk prices have plummeted, for example, sales of organic milk have also fallen (because conventional milk is now so cheap).

However, the irony is that many UK farmers are no longer that interested in the ‘low-cost producer’ market and are instead pursuing higher quality production. But’s stats have led Barclay’s head of agriculture, Mark Suthern, to comment that “perhaps now is the time for the industry to think differently, to ensure that UK farming remains competitive at family firm level and can compete with global players providing cheaper imported produce”.

Is this really the direction we should move in, catering to the lowest common denominator in production levels and chasing the global commodities market? Does this really help Britain’s food security? We know that going lower is ultimately an end game. It can only lead to further degradation of the environment and our soils, poorer health for the population and irreversible climate change that will make the planet unliveable.

Highly pathogenic H7N7 bird flu confirmed at Lancashire farm

Farmers Guardian – Monday 13th July

On the subject of cheap food… a virulent strain of bird flu has landed again in Britain. Infection has been confirmed at a farm in Lancashire, where 170,000 birds – the entire flock – were culled. While this strain of avian flu is not especially dangerous to humans, there is a real possibility of the disease spreading through the UK poultry industry. This heightens the ever-present concern that sooner or later a strain of bird flu will mutate into an epidemic variant that affects humans. A strain of avian flu became epidemic in the United States just a few months ago, resulting in the loss of millions of birds and a significant increase in the cost of eggs.

The spread of viruses such as avian flu are inevitably fed by increasingly intensive industrial farming methods. The high stocking levels, which lead to greater stress on the animals, are ideal conditions for the spread of disease – which is why there is so much prophylactic use of antibiotics in factory farming. Although there are established protocols for containing outbreaks of disease, we have learned many times over how difficult this is to manage. This is one more reason to reform intensive livestock production systems, in addition to issues of animal welfare, antibiotic resistance, ammonia pollution of the air we breath and meat with a poor balance of essential nutrients.

Monsanto is trying to become the biggest company in the history of agriculture

Modern Farmer – Thursday 9th July

When is big too big? We think it’s definitely when Monsanto takes over Syngenta to create what one activist has referred to as the “ultimate supervillian”. That might be a little harsh, but Monsanto has managed to cultivate one of the worst names in the corporate world, ranking 97th out of 100 in this year’s Harris Poll – a study of corporations’ reputations.

So far, Syngenta has vigorously rejected Monsanto’s advances and let’s cross our fingers that it stays that way. A takeover would definitely make Monsanto the king of the hill in food production, giving the company unprecedented control over markets and pricing. It would border on insanity to give one company this much power over our food.

Photograph: Steph French

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