We have one generation to transform the current global food system into one that can support an increasingly large population and an increasingly sick planet. Just how such a massive and unprecedented transition will occur remains subject to debate, although what is more clear is that certain power structures that pervade society are preventing this crisis being addressed with the urgency that it demands. In a recent commentary, Auckland University's Professor Boyd Swinburn, discusses the major power players that are creating inertia and what can be done about them.
'It is now abundantly clear', Swinburn writes, 'that the food systems which evolved last century through the Green Revolution, massive global population growth, globalization of trade in goods and services, neoliberal economics, and the increasing concentration of market power in the hands of food company oligopolies are now not fit-for-purpose for the challenges we face in this century.'
Indeed, the food system is not-for-purpose: obesity is becoming increasingly prevalent in virtually every corner of the world, under-nutrition is back on the rise, and global annual greenhouse gas emissions, which food production contributes significantly to, continue to increase (albeit after a brief plateau between 2014-16). The global food system is not only not fit-for-purpose, the Inter-Academy Partnership (a consortium of 130 national academies of science and medicine) has declared that it is failing humanity.
If we fail to act now the consequences for both population and planetary health will be disastrous. If we fail to address the power dynamics that prevent action then we don't stand a chance. Swinburn advocates for a systems-thinking approach, identifying systemic drivers that are creating inertia and then redesigning our food systems accordingly.
"Part of that thinking is to realise that all systems perfectly create the outcomes that they are designed to produce. So, if the outcomes are bad, then we need to analyse the design of the food systems, including the underlying political economy they are built on. However, to re-design the food systems for better outcomes, we need to understand the in-built tendency for the system to push back on attempted changes, thus maintaining the status quo. That is what complex, adaptive systems do."
Of the three principal systemic sources of inaction that Swinburn identifies, he argues that food industry influence, specifically the translation of market power into political power, is the most problematic. In the name of preserving profits (and at the cost of people and the planet), ultra-processed food giants actively oppose implementation of healthy food policies, while powerful meat and dairy lobbying efforts resist against policies that aim to address environmental issues. This is despite the fact that the majority of global agricultural subsidies are dished out in support of these industries: one such example of how readily deep pockets can be translated into political influence.
This leads us on to the second systemic source of inaction, which is the reluctance of our politicians and policymakers to institute constructive public policy, particularly regulatory solutions, such as marketing restrictions and taxation, which are often seen as 'hard', but also happen to be evidence-based and effective.
"Often politicians seem to believe (against all evidence) in the power of market-based and educational solutions to address obesity, they are spooked into inaction by the real or potential industry opposition (so-called regulatory chill), they want to invest their political capital on other issues, or they are inept or corrupt. Of course, combinations apply, but the net result is that inaction predominates, even as the obesity epidemic unfolds before their eyes and their countries support the blueprints for action that WHO puts to the World Health Assembly year after year. While the power to enact policies for healthier, sustainable food systems rests with the politicians, in reality they are usually very reluctant to use those powers."
We are about one fifth into the 21st century and it is now abundantly clear that the food systems which evolved last century through the Green Revolution, massive global population growth, globalization of trade in goods and services, neoliberal economics, and the increasing concentration of market power in the hands of food company oligopolies are now not fit-for-purpose for the challenges we face in this century. Two outcomes of food systems are inescapable—firstly, they are rapidly, and in some cases, irreversibly destroying our natural environments and secondly, they are by far the biggest cause of disease and premature death. Getting our food systems right is the single most powerful lever we have for achieving ecological health and human health.
Power Dynamics in 21st-Century Food Systems, Commentary by Boyd Swinburn
November 22, 2019
Topic / Food Policy
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Finally, Swinburn identifies the failure of civil society to rise up and demand change as another important source of inaction. The support is 'quiet support', Swinburn argues: although the public, academics, and professional associations strongly support healthy and sustainable public policy (such as restricting junk food advertising targeted at children, taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks, and a New Zealand Zero Carbon Bill that would hold all industries equally accountable by targeting net-zero emissions across all greenhouse gases by at least 2050) the collective will is not sufficiently strong or loud enough to overcome the existing power structures.
That being said, Swinburn also argues that civil society may be the "sleeping giant" yet to awaken and realise its true power: the ability to reclaim control of society's food systems from the grip of big food conglomerates. Given the recent global climate marches, which saw more than 4 million people take to the streets (including roughly 3.5% of New Zealanders), Swinburn might well be right— here's to hoping he is.
Global Syndemic /
The Powers That Be: What's Preventing the Great Inter-generational Food Transformation?