Politics of the palate

Global hunger, environmental pollution, obesity and fair trade. These aren?t just topics for the dinner table anymore — they have actually become part of the meal. Dominic Dyer explores the many ethical, emotional and political issues impacting food manufacturers today

What is so political about food? World hunger, land reform, deforestation, biotechnology, diet and health are just some of the hot political issues now tied up with the production and consumption of food.

In many ways, the world has successfully addressed the challenge of a rapidly growing population through rising agricultural productivity. According to the UN, the number of people who are undernourished has fallen from 920 million in 1980 to 799 million by 2000, even though the world?s population increased by 1.6 billion over this period.

Despite this success, food remains a key emotional issue for most people in the developed world, and this is throwing up many challenges for policy makers. Food affects our lives in many ways — not only do we need to eat to survive, but what we eat can have a major impact on our health and life expectancy. Food also plays a central role in religion, national identity and the state of our environment. As a result, food manufacturers now have to operate in a political climate that impacts every aspect of their business from agricultural production and labour issues to genetic modification of food and health concerns.

Production and trade
Food remains an important aspect of national security and the need to maintain a stable food supply has been the prime reason why Europe and the United States have developed their agricultural policies around a framework of subsidies and import tariffs.

Although these policies have been successful in terms of keeping farmers on the land and maintaining food supplies, they have come at a cost. These include higher food prices, environmental and food health concerns associated with intensive production methods and a negative impact on developing countries? economies.

The US and Europe remain committed to reaching agreement in the World Trade Organization to liberalise trade in agriculture, but this is proving to be a painfully slow process. The G8 Group of Industrialised Countries (under UK chairmanship) will be focusing on the need to assist Africa during 2005, and the recent tsunami disaster in Asia has once more highlighted the need to develop more effective policies on debt write-off and wider aid to developing countries.

The wider corporate and social responsibility agenda is influencing the food sector as manufacturers develop organic and fair trade products; focus on sustainable fisheries management; and develop wider ethical trading initiatives in key commodity sectors, such as tea, coffee, palm oil and soybeans.

A combination of political developments, NGO lobbying activities and consumer demand will mean that manufacturers will continue to need to keep a close eye on agriculture and international trade, as this will increasingly impact their businesses.

Diet and health
There is nothing new about government intervening in the food business, indeed many of the first government laws and regulations were introduced to help maintain food supplies and prevent the adulteration of bread and other staple foods. But in the last decade, growing concerns about obesity and health have led governments across the Western world to take the first steps to try to improve the public?s eating habits.

No one can doubt the extent of the obesity problem. In 2000, the World Health Organization released a report indicating more than 50 per cent of the population in many developed countries are now overweight.

Governments have reacted by introducing a deluge of policy proposals ranging from restrictions in advertising certain foods to children; steps to reduce salt, fat and sugar levels in food; and various nutritional food profiling initiatives.

It is far from clear if governments can make people healthier as a result of these initiatives, but the pressure on the food industry will remain intense in this area as the diet and health debate continues to rage.

Genetic modification
The development of genetically modified foods continues to provoke a fierce debate around the world. Supporters of biotechnology claim this advance in food technology can increase crop yields, battle pests and weeds, and improve the nutritional quality of many products. Despite these claims, consumers in Europe remain unconvinced. This has resulted in the introduction of GM traceability and labelling regulations, which many in the biotech industry believe make the production of GM crops and sale of GM foods commercially unviable.

The cost of maintaining effective segregation and identity preservation systems to maintain non-GM supply lines remains a heavy burden on many food manufacturers. With more than 80 per cent of the soy and 38 per cent of maize grown in the US now genetically modified and with rapid developments in GM crop planting in South America, China and India, GM food is here to stay. Although there is no evidence to indicate the consumption of GM foods poses a health risk, protest and politics will continue to threaten the future of GM foods for many years to come.

Product innovation
Politics is having a growing impact on product development and innovation. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration has reacted in a positive way to the demand from food manufacturers to develop more healthy foods by liberalising the rules on making health claims and adopting a four-tier system informing consumers of the level of scientific research supporting any claim.

However, in the EU, the European Commission is moving in the direction of developing a much stricter regulatory framework for approving claims, which may not allow health claims on many foods that are considered to have a high fat, sugar or salt content. Many food manufacturers in Europe remain concerned that any new European Health Claims Directive will stifle innovation in the industry and put companies off investing in product development.

Today, food companies are rapidly increasing the levels of resources they put into research to develop a new generation of nutritional foods that address the concerns of a rapidly ageing population. This has a good basis in demographics, when you consider that the number of people over 65 in the world has risen from 230 million in 1975 to 830 million in 2000.

The food industry is also leading the way in nutrition science. In 1996, there were 210 peer-reviewed papers; by 2002 there were more than 1,000. But more science inevitably brings more government regulation, and reaching a balance between protecting the interests of consumers against misleading claims, without stifling future product development and innovation, is becoming increasingly difficult.

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