Why tweaking won’t change our food system

by | 9 Mar 2024

The Scottish Government is reheating old food policies and it won't work. The food system is such an issue now only serious action will make a difference.

First published by Common Weal

I cannot state this clearly enough – they will come for my porridge over my dead body. My day starts in one of three ways; along with an espresso and a big pot of Earl Gray, it’s muesli I make myself, granola the kids eat if I’m in a rush or on cold (or just plain shitty) days it’s porridge (into which I will confess I throw some dried fruits – no hating).

I’ve heard people tell me that porridge is ’empty calories’ with no nutritional value. Those people don’t understand the importance of dietary fibre. The soft fibre in oats is the perfect kind of fibre for the human body – sharper wheat fibres are absorbed by the stomach less well. Porridge is a great source of protein and it lowers cholesterol in the blood and reduces the risk of heart disease.

And rolling oats, throwing them in a pan and boiling them in water and milk (no hating) is the definition of minimal processing. It’s a traditional Scottish dish and we produce every square inch of what we need to make it here in Scotland. What is not to like?

So you’ll imagine my outrage when the Scottish Government put it on its ‘junk food list’. Presumably some civil servant only knows porridge as ‘those brightly coloured boxes with added sugar I keep seeing in the Sainsbury’s near my expensive Leith apartment’. But what it tells you is something very important about the Scottish Government’s policy – they don’t really know what they’re doing.

Or possibly more accurately, they know what they should be doing but the power of the Big Food lobbying industry requires them to not do it. Either way, let me quickly explain what they are proposing and why it’s not going to work, what it would look like if it was working and how we might get there.

What the Scottish Government is doing is faking a food policy with a single news line added and it’s all wrong. I know this because it is a full-on reheat of a policy stance the Scottish Government attempted about five years ago and which it pulled back from because the experts told them they were getting it wrong.

Why a bad idea has been dug out of the freezer and microwaved now isn’t clear to me. The thrust of the approach is kind of roughly ‘provide more healthy eating advice and chuck in one piece of tokenism for the FM to announce’. The healthy eating advice is just the same healthy eating advice as before, but tweaked. The gimmick is the same gimmick as before – ban multibuy food deals.

Here’s the thing; health advice doesn’t help those in most need, as we can tell because the more advice that’s given, the worse diet-related disease gets. It doesn’t work because, fundamentally, it is yet another neoliberal way of diverting the blame for what is happening away from the powerful corporates who are actually responsible and putting the blame on the public which is largely not responsible.

How can the public not be responsible for its food choices? Because the food system has made food that’s bad for you cheaper than healthy food, much more addictive than healthy food and much more aggressively marketed than healthy food. All aspects of this trace back to the same problem – ultra processing.

Humans have always processed food – cooking is a process, fermenting is a process, pickling or salting is a process. But our era industrialised it. The reason bad food is cheap food is exactly because they use the cheapest edible(ish) crap they can throw into your dinner. The reason you can eat it is because they process the fuck out of it using chemicals and enhancers.

When something tastes like nothing, salt, sugar, vile trans fats and artificial flavourings can turn that round. None of it is good for you, but in their laboratories they can now measure how addictive the food is likely to be. They tweak and tweak and tweak their processes to get just the right balance of addictive qualities. That process both covers over a lack of nutrition and actually makes things worse. 

Salt and sugar are things we should be reducing in our diet generally and the forms of sugar (like corn syrup) used in UPCs is particularly bad for you. Meanwhile there is basically no circumstance in which humans should really be eating trans fats, and if you need a lot of artificial additives in your food, that tells you something about your recipe.

Even clear labelling wouldn’t do it – rationality doesn’t play nicely with addiction, and if you’re tucking in to volumes of say cheap ice cream every day you’re not doing it rationally

But – and inevitably here we go – it’s not that simple. If you want to veer away from highly processed beef burgers you might end up with a veggie burger instead, but that will almost certainly be ultra-processed too and it may well be worse for you than the burger.

It is easier to explain what a good food system would look like than to explain what to do about the one we have. Basically both we as individuals and the NHS would benefit enormously if most of our food was prepared in traditional ways – cooked that day from mostly natural ingredients or that food reheated from frozen (I’m not going to get into meat/not meat here because this is about nutrition – meat isn’t inherently unhealthy).

Unfortunately almost everything in our society is rigged against this. Natural ingredients are more expensive than what goes into UPCs. If you could see what goes into UPCs you’d realise why (don’t go and read about mechanically recovered meat if you eat a lot of ready meals and want to enjoy them). The corporations process, they don’t grow, so they don’t really profit from natural ingredients. So they upsell the alternative.

There is next to no restriction on the ‘engineering’ of processed foods and so no control or attention paid to addictiveness. We are time poor and the supermarket system is designed for large, irregular shopping which means everything needs a long shelf life. And as well as often having little time to cook, we aren’t even properly taught how.

Fixing this is not a tweak sort of thing. If you want to tweak, just tweak the health advice categories and be done. The rest of what needs to be done would challenge a powerful vested interest. Because if you really want consumers to sort this through choice you must mandate large, consistent labelling to help people assess how dreadful their food options are, and the producers hate that idea and lobby against labelling regulation with ferocity.

And even that wouldn’t do it – rationality doesn’t play nicely with addiction, and if you’re tucking in to volumes of say cheap ice cream every day you’re not doing it rationally. You’re addicted. Plus how is health advice going to help if you can’t afford to follow the advice?

I’d suggest there are three broad things we’d want to do if we were serious, and when I tell you what they are you’ll see why governments run from what we should really consider our ‘food crisis’ to a safe place where it’s all your fault. First, we need to get market pricing to reflect externalities.

Or, to put it another way, we must take steps that rebalance the relative costs of food, taking into account things like the enormous induced costs in our health service (at least £6.5 billion at the UK level on obesity alone) and the enormous cost of the environmental mitigation required after large monocrops are used to produce cheap ingredients. We need to start thinking of processed food more like cigarettes or alcohol.

If the producer was paying that rather than the taxpayer, the cost of food would reflect its impact. Remember, food is too important to treat it like handbags – the goal of the market should not be to minimise prices at all cost. This would make food more expensive, but food needs to be more expensive (as I’ve shown there, we are paying more for this food, but in taxes rather than at the till).

Things have gone so far into an industrial food dystopia that a slight change of trajectory won’t help

So what about people with limited incomes? Well, an externalities tax imposed on food would all be free money – so why not just give it all back to people again? We propose that a system with a Universal Basic Income would see that UBI get a food-specific bump based on how much was raised. Yes food would be more expensive, but only bad food, and you’d get the money back.

To do this you need to assess every product to find out what its externalities are. This is the hard work, because as I’ve indicated above, you can’t just drop these into blunt categories. Technically according to the classifications, supermarket bread is as bad for you as a ready meal stuffed with trans fats, chemicals, salt and sugar. It is not; it is just bread with agents added to slow down how fast it goes stale. The bread is better without those additives and poor-flour-quality white bread isn’t great, but they’re not in the category of trans fats.

That’s why we proposed a Consumer Agency which would basically assess every product based on a more sophisticated assessment of its real externalities (including carbon released during production and distribution). Of course, we’d extend this to all products, so an object made out of plastic would be taxed more than an identical object made of wood.

But it would need a change in our food distribution system. Supermarkets are generally too big and too far away to do anything other than a big weekly shop. This is where the radicalism of ’15 minute neighbourhoods’ comes in (except it needs to be five minute neighbourhoods). Real localism would mean you could shop more often, more easily without more cost. 

As part of that we don’t need to give up all convenience food. Go to France or a Nordic country and you’ll find that supermarkets have a hot isle where you can get your dinner pre-made, but made on the day without additional processing. I’d love go into how all of this could be done, but this article is already miles over length.

So I’ll finish with the other big issue, which is to rebalance our time commitments. We need to have more time to ourselves. We over-work and then need to purchase back services to replace the things we used to do ourselves but don’t have time for now. We need to teach people to cook. We need to give them time to cook. And we need to give them time to shop fresh for what they cook.

Bluntly, most of the rest of what we can do if we do not seriously re-engineer our food system is just tinkering round the edges. Things have gone so far into an industrial food dystopia that a slight change of trajectory won’t help. Either accept early deaths, endemic obesity, a collapsing NHS and a socially-fragmented society (food brings us together), or do something about it.

Shouting about multibuys and health advice? No-one who knows anything is asking for that. And vilifying porridge? If it was down to me that would fall under the the Treachery Act of 1940.

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