The food fault-line at the core of our economy

Posted by | June 30, 2015 | Civil Society, Thoughts | No Comments

 

The food sector wants to sell us more for greater profits – but we need to consume less

Almost all business people and economic pundits feel obliged to start a discussion with the premise that the sole function of a business is to make a profit. It’s said with such regularity that we never question it. But doth the lady protest too much? The drive to make money, purely for the sake of it, is now the established economic hegemony.

This view is stated at the outset, as it then becomes the premise for all economic policy discussions. Yet there are many successful businesses, past and present, who saw their efforts to make profit as something indelibly linked with other key objectives.

In the past, some businesses led the way in worker welfare

From the early dreams of Anita Roddick’s Body Shop, which revolutionised ethical consumerism, to the many Quaker confectionary families like Fry’s, Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s, who had an entirely different view of the role of their business. Indeed our own Guinness family led the way in worker welfare from the provision of healthcare, housing, education and pensions so that that they, and others, were part of the forces which helped usher in the welfare state. Can you imagine Ryanair helping to deliver such social change? Or any major international business today?

Certainly many sign up to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes but these are more window dressing than core beliefs. More than a century and a half before the big players started sticking Fair Trade logos on their packaging the early Cadbury family were ethically sourcing cocoa from farmers in West Africa. Today, of course Cadbury has been long adopted by the corporate giants, it’s most recent step-mother being Mondelez International.

The problem with the drive for exponentially growing profits in the food sector has come face to face with an immovable fact: food companies need to sell us more food in order to make a profit, even though we need to consume less in order to live long, healthy lives. Neither will our already creaking national health services be able to mange the explosion in ill-health.

Poor diet and the drive to consume more calories are killing us

For the first time in human history the biggest human killers are not pathogens, the biggest human killer, at least in the Western world, are the illnesses created by poverty, poor diet and the drive to consume more calories. Cardiovascular disease is responsible for more than half all deaths across Europe yet, according to WHO, 80% of these deaths are preventable.

A 2014 Lancet survey revealed that 26.5% of women in Ireland under 20 years of age are overweight or obese. That figure falls to 16% for men under 20, though 66% of Irish men over 20 are obese or overweight. Commenting on the research Prof Klim Mc Pherson of Oxford University said that: “BMI needs to return to what it was 30 years ago. In the UK this would require a reduction in food consumption of 8%, or €8.7 billion per year to the food sector.”

But that is not even the full picture, the full picture is worse. The high obesity levels amongst women are a particular concern as the obesity is also a function of high calorific food which is nutritionally shallow. This low nutritional diet has now had a significant perinatal impact, so children are now being born with ‘built-in’ cardiovascular weaknesses. So even if they attempt to live the healthiest of lives their health has already been compromised in the womb. According to the Irish Heart Foundation obesity and food poverty are costing us €1.13 billion per annum.

Nobody just wants to be prosperous anymore – they want to be a billionaire

But what are the solutions? There are plenty: from a radical re-education around food knowledge; to junk food taxes; and subsidies for local fruit and vegetables. But this will not sit well with major food businesses who will still need to produce more calories for us to consume. It’s a fundamental challenge not just to their core business but the commonly held view of why you would go into business in the first place. Nobody just wants to be prosperous anymore, they want to be a billionaire.

According to Kantar Worldpanel we spent €1.8 billion on groceries in 2012. What would this 8% reduction in food consumption look like in Ireland to get our BMI back to 1980s levels? At a rough estimate (excluding the smaller traders not in Kantor research) it could mean shaving €145 million off the profits of major food producers. This is considerably less than our annual obesity and food poverty costs of €1.13 billion, estimated by UCC research in 2012. But those costs are set to rise and as we already struggle to keep our health bill in check we need some long-term vision.

Our present food policies are killing us early, disfiguring the life-long health of the yet-to-be-born and ignoring the real health and environmental costs of food production profits. It’s time to start looking again at some core human endeavours, which are in need of longer term planning beyond the vagaries of the political cycle. The concept of stewardship needs to be injected into the capitalist model of the economy. We need to shift towards qualitative economic growth models, at least for some sectors, rather than raw quantitative growth. Otherwise we are just moving calories around the menu on the Titanic.

 

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