Fight for food ethic all can stomach

December 3, 2004

Twentieth-century productionism left us overfed, underfed or badly fed. Tim Lang looks at the new battle for mouths and minds

At every policy level - local, national, regional, global - a pattern of eating and producing, distributing, processing, retailing, cooking and consuming food is now on trial. The endless food crises of the past two decades - obesity being but the latest - signify the beginning of the end of the era of "productionism", a food-policy paradigm that stressed increasing supply by improving capital and labour efficiency and lowering costs to consumers. Productionism became the dominant paradigm in the mid-20th century, partly due to its promulgation and championing by UK scientists and thinkers, for very understandable reasons.

Shocked by the experience of 1930s recession and the collapse of agricultural markets in the developed world, yet alive to the burgeoning need for better food security in rich and poor worlds, this generation of policy advisers and scientists - names rarely mentioned today but giants in their day, such as John Boyd Orr, R. G. Stapledon, Lord Addison, C. S.

Orwin and W. Seebohm Rowntree and their global counterparts - argued that farming could feed the world, if only technical capacity were unleashed.

Plant and animal breeding, plus better equipment and distribution, could give farming a new dignity and banish the dustbowl of the US Deep South so movingly portrayed in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath .

Their messages of investment and unleashing production also made sense to social reformers interested in food, such as Eleanor Rathbone and the Co-op Womens' Guild, campaigning for mothers to be paid to feed their children better. The productionist paradigm, linked to welfare social policies, offered something to everyone: social and global justice, science, health, work, dignity and an opportunity to rescue the countryside from what Marx memorably, if patronisingly, called "the idiocy of rural life". The politics was about delivery; the goal was output; the mechanisms included subsidies and supply chain management. It worked.

So why has productionism run into such difficulty when the world has never had more food? Partly, it is a victim of its own success. Leaps in productivity feed more mouths than ever. Europe is famine-free. Globally, the proportion of those who go hungry drops year on year, though the United Nations calculates the absolute number to be a dire 800 million. Partly, productionism is a relic from when farming was politically powerful. Today, power lies with retailers and traders controlling the supply chain with ruthless attention to contracts and specifications.

More significant, productionism is running out of intellectual steam because the evidence base for policy is now more complex. However brilliant the managers, logistics and computer programs of the modern food barons may be, not even they can control climate change or water depletion or tackle the rapid global rise in degenerative diseases. Spoilt for choice, humans now die prematurely from diet and lifestyle change. "Western" patterns and cheap calories have spread to countries that aspire or are moulded to cheaper food and can now afford to abandon restricted peasant diets. The rub is that they haven't the healthcare systems or budgetary depth to afford coronary bypass surgery or diabetes programmes that follow the nutrition transition. For countries such as China, India and Brazil, this is now terrifying health ministries and the World Health Organisation alike. As a result, in May this year, the World Health Assembly backed the WHO's Global Strategy on tackling non-communicable diseases despite lobbying by the US Government, sugar industry and the worst of the food industry.

In the early to mid-20th century, health problems were overwhelmingly associated with underproduction, maldistribution and underconsumption.

Today, our world is characterised by under, over and malconsumption, side by side; and this coexistence is not just a global phenomenon. Within the same families, there can be people with nutrient excess, deficiencies and distortions.

The belief that if only the food supply chain could churn out more food all would broadly be all right is now unsupportable. We know that productionism has unleashed capacity, but it has done so by threatening biodiversity, by polluting waterways and soil, by throwing people off the land (when good husbandry requires care and intelligence not just brute giant machinery), by distorting markets through oversupply of nutritionally doubtful products, and by putting quantity above quality, or defining quality in cosmetic rather than life-cycle terms.

Productionism has run out of legitimacy because it is too crude for today's complexities. But what might replace it? Two emerging paradigms compete for the honour. One is the life sciences integration paradigm; the other is the ecologically integrated paradigm. Each gives primacy to biology, one by ratcheting up still further food's productive capacity, the other by placing long-term ecological survival at the centre of the entire food supply chain. The holy grail of the life sciences paradigm is probably now nutrigenomics (whereas biotechnology gets all the publicity), the pursuit of a marriage of diet and genetic inheritance. You eat a diet tailored to your family history of cardiovascular disease; I to mine of prostate cancer. You eat a spread with probiotics; I eat a diet of selenium-and-lycopene-enriched food.

It is a powerful promise, but many observers think it will not alter the new public health principles for how populations ought to live. We ought to eat not just the five-a-day fruit and vegetable portions the UK and US governments advise, but the six the Danish Cancer Society recommends or the nine that the Greek Government, home of the Mediterranean diet, officially supports. We need to eat only proportionate to our energy expenditure. We need to exercise considerably (10,000 steps a day and so on). We need to get more biodiversity into the field and thence to our plate as locally as possible. We need to pay the full social, health and environmental costs of food production. We need to reskill ourselves to lower our dependency on the new baronial class that dominates our food supply chain. We need, in short, not an individualised approach to public health but an ecological one.

The modern challenge of food policy is not more big science, but more thinking across the policy boxes based on subtle science; science engaging with a social vision, not just answering the pied piper of whichever company has the fattest cheque ( pace the research assessment exercise).

That's the lesson of not just child obesity, but the profligate use of oil to cart bottled water or soft drinks thousands of polluting food miles, and the continuing social inequalities of a world in which starvation and excess coexist unbearably closely. There are signs within governments and industry that this message is getting through, but to what extent?

The irony of the productionist paradigm is that it has shown us that humans do not need to accept the fate of famine, crop shortages and weather foibles. But it has snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. Agriculture is the single greatest user of potable water, yet water shortages, like climate change, are likely to rock the world in the next 30 years. The spectre of a new food and health insecurity, over and undersupply, is stalking the corridors of power. The evidence is there, but will decision-makers look or listen fast enough? The WHO made a valiant effort with its Global Strategy, but with regime change in Geneva, some fear the strategy is being sidelined or reduced to an individualised message when the problem is a general one about food culture.

One decider as to which of the two emerging paradigms triumphs - life sciences or ecological public health - is likely to be how engaged the eating public is. Civil society is the ground on which the battle for mouths, minds and markets is played out. Everyone tries to capture the consumer but we now know that consumerism is a double-edged policy sword. A deeply rooted tension is being played out between what I call the forces of food control and food democracy; those, on the one hand, who seek to control food and to control populations through food and those, on the other hand, for whom a decent food system can be achieved only by democratisation. But will the overfed, badly fed and underfed see common cause?

There have been moments of policy shift in the past. This time, the tension is being played out on a global and regional, not just a national or local scale, between what we eat and its health, environmental and social consequences. The evidence for policy change has been around for years but the gap between that evidence and policy appears to narrow only when there is pressure from outside, coupled with sympathisers inside who will listen.

I am not sure we are at that point yet. But we might be soon.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy, City University, London. Food Wars: The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets by Tim Lang and Michael Heasman is published by Earthscan, £19.99. The Times Higher and the Food Ethics Council are holding a debate, "Just knowledge - governing research on food and farming", at the Conference Centre, Royal Horticultural Halls, London, on December 10. For more details, visit www.foodethicscouncil.org

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