We have known for decades that diets in rich countries contain too much fat, sugar and salt and are making some of us ill. But as consumers will not change their habits, governments and food companies may have to save us from ourselvesby Rosalind Sharpe / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Food is ubiquitous in rich countries. On top of the array of food in supermarkets and restaurants, it has become almost impossible to leave your home without being confronted by an astounding range of snacks, tailored for the need of the moment.
This represents a triumph for the food industry in its long battle with perishability. Building on the success of tinned corned beef and frozen fish fingers, food technologists have, over the past 30 years or so, developed systems for manufacturing, packaging and transporting food which mean that all kinds of things, from muffins to burgers to cook-chill trout with almonds, can be produced in massive quantities, to a uniform standard, in hygienic protective wrappers, with a long shelf life and at a relatively low cost. And, you may fairly say, a wonderful thing it is too. We do not have to spend as much of our income on food (around 16 per cent now, on average, if you include eating out, compared with just over 25 per cent 50 years ago), we do not have to shop as often, and we do not have to struggle with time-consuming, labour-intensive cooking from raw ingredients. Women, the traditional food providers, have been partly liberated from the kitchen.
The result is that there are millions of tonnes of food swilling around in Britain’s overproductive food system. This system provides between 3,000 and 3,500 calories for every person every day, when the average amount recommended to keep an active adult healthy is at most 2,500. We export food, but import still more of it, sometimes of the same commodities (in 2000, Britain exported 445m litres of liquid milk and imported 105m litres). We compost or plough back into the ground thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible vegetables every year, to keep up the price to growers. Some food (such as beet sugar) we dump on the developing world at subsidised prices, to the disadvantage of local producers. And some of it we simply dump in our dustbins. In 1999, the US department of agriculture estimated that 27 per cent of the food produced by America’s similarly overproductive and heavily subsidised food system was wasted. Nevertheless, we eat most of it, and it is making us fat and ill. Thus, gradually but inexorably, our enviable abundance of food, something a substantial proportion of the world’s population still only dreams of and which Europeans did not enjoy until the 19th century, has become not a blessing but a problem.