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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

a food policy? « Previous | |Next »
November 8, 2009

As Michael Pollan points out in The New York Times, our industrial food system is now characterized by monocultures of corn and soy in the field and cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat on the table. It has enabled an Australian to be able to go into a fast-food restaurant and to buy a double cheeseburger, chips and a large Coke for a price equal to less than an hour of labour at the minimum wage.

However, the food and agriculture policies we’ve inherited from the industrial-food system, which were designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap fossil fuel energy to do so, are in difficulties. There is a need to address the problems they have caused: excess production pollutants, lack of water, junk food, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food supply, and ever increasing public subsidies to prop up the old system of maximizing production (get big or get out) from a handful of subsidized commodity crops grown in monocultures.

The rise of markets for alternative kinds of food (organic, local, regional) indicates a shift away from cheap convenience foods full of fat and sugar, whilst the environmental or public-health price keeps increasing during a time of climate change. Time to rethink the way we produce food? Time to question industrial style food?

Pollan, who is the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, says:

As I write, the FDA has just signed off on a new health claim for Frito-Lay chips on the grounds that eating chips fried in polyunsaturated fats can help you reduce your consumption of saturated fats, thereby conferring blessings on your cardiovascular system. So can a notorious junk food pass through the needle eye of nutritionist logic and come out the other side looking like a health food.

The smart thing to do, he argues, is stay away from any food that trumpets its nutritional virtues, since:
for a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it's more likely to be a processed than a whole food...The genuinely heart-healthy whole foods in the produce section, lacking the financial and political clout of the packaged goods a few aisles over, are mute.

At the policy level there should be a change from the policy to shrink the number of farmers by promoting capital-intensive monoculture and consolidation to building the infrastructure for a regional food. There needs to be a ban on the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed on public-health grounds, now that we have evidence that the practice is leading to the evolution of drug-resistant bacterial diseases and to outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning.

Thirdly, confined animal factories should also be regulated like the factories they are, required to clean up their waste like any other industry or municipality. It is a shift to a more sustainable agriculture. Fourthly that the health minister should take over from the Department of Agriculture the job of communicating with Australians about their diet. Pollan says:

That way we might begin to construct a less equivocal and more effective public-health message about nutrition. Indeed, there is no reason that public-health campaigns about the dangers of obesity and Type 2 diabetes shouldn’t be as tough and as effective as public-health campaigns about the dangers of smoking. The public needs to know and see precisely what [Type 2 diabetes] means: blindness; amputation; early death. All of which can be avoided by a change in diet and lifestyle. A public-health crisis of this magnitude calls for a blunt public-health message, even at the expense of offending the food industry.

Fifthly, the industrial agricultural system should be exempted from an emissions trading scheme designed to increase the cost of using cheap fossil fuel.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:57 AM | | Comments (22)


The snack food soft drink aisle in a supermarket is pretty large compared to the healthy food one.

The Woolworth's supermarket in Victor Harbor has selling increasingly shifted to stocking processed food as opposed to ingredients to cook your own food.

The shift in the supermarket to healthy food requires a shift in the Australian diet from a mono agriculture founded on imported fossil fuel (lots of fertilizer) to local sunshine agriculture. It also requires a changes in our daily lives---a change in food culture--- because our daily lives are now are deeply implicated in the economy and culture of fast, cheap and easy food.

Supermarkets don't do wholefoods well because they do everything in bulk. The fruit and veg at your local small greengrocer might be a bit soggy or spotty, but you're less likely to get it home and find it rots overnight because it's been frozen. And what's with supermarket fruit and veg gigantism? Why does a stick of celery have to be as thick as your thigh and a beetroot the size of a basketball? No wonder it's all tasteless.

Supermarkets pre-package meat, so they can't sell you one lamb cutlet or two sausages.

They do daily bread, but would you go to a supermarket to get a still warm vienna loaf?

Seafood doesn't bear thinking about. As the daughter of a fisherman I wouldn't dream of buying supermarket seafood with sunken eyes, shriveling skin and colour of old fence palings.

I am fortunate in Adelaide as I live two blocks from the Central Market in the CBD. So everything is fresh, and there is a wide variety of fruit and vegetables at a range of prices. I shop every second day. It is just a question of slipping around the corner to shop,+ scan the AFR at Cibo's over coffee.

One of the reasons for living in a townhouse in the CBD and putting up with noise and graffiti was the easy access to the central market and its fresh food. this access has changed the way eat. It is now fresh and clean, regionally based, seasonal with lots of herbs.

yeah I've noticed that shift in the food culture at Woolworths---it is in response to the market. There is an excellent fish shop and a fruit and veg shop in Victor Harbor---at the Harbor Traders precinct. Fresh, good quality but expensive. We shop at both places all the time.

Hi Gary, a friend of mine sent me this link this morning.

Even when you find a bay labelled "Health Food" in a supermarket (and it's never an aisle, or even one side of one), it's full of such things as organic corn chips, carob bars and "almost bacon" made out of hydrolised vegetable protein. There's very little in the way of genuinely healthy food.

First, trying to get antibotics removed from pork, chook etc production is no new thing. Early in the Howard years, a 4 Corners show examined this, including the nobbling of AQIS as to regulating of imports of phermaceuticals and genetic material.
As to the market, living at Bowden I like a look about as well.
But the fish stalls are the big disappointment of recent times, with local products like bream, mullet, tommies etc vanished and prices thru the roof for anything else.
Just as well I like Skate.
Yes Lynn, have your comments in mind- one takes one's chances.

Don't forget that food in the western world is purchased at third world prices. People in poorer countries pay around half their income buying food- 1/3 of the worlds population live on a few dollars a day.
Basically Australian farmers produce at a level the world can afford, and the Australian public benefit from their productivity. With little recognition.

I feel there is something inherently unfair that our society can pay $15 for a movie- a couple of hours frivolous entertainment- yet could buy the raw ingredients to feed themselves for weeks for the same. ie 80kg of wheat, 100kg of corn, or several kgs of beef.

We can complain about low cost calories simply because they are such a small part of our income. To increase the cost of production by not having monocultures, pay carbon taxes etc will have little impact on the "protected" wages of Australians, but not so for those who barely afford to eat now.

I think we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water here.

Yes, we eat much more sugar and protein than previous generations. The protein is making us taller and the sugar is making us fatter. The sugar is hidden in the processed 'healthy' foods that we eat. Foods that are manufactured in a factory. So if you want to watch your weight only walk around the outside aisles of the supermarket where the perishable food is displayed.

If we hadn't had the Green Revolution after 1945 more of the world's population would be hungry and without the introduction of supermarket chains Australian consumers would pay much more for food.

The headline of The Border Mail for the day in 1954 that new Tallangatta was officially opened by some worthy was "Small Tasmanian potato crop leads to high prices" and the article went on to say that potatoes comprised 34% of some families budgets. Anyone remember the last potato merchant at South Melbourne market.

I welcome improvements in agriculture and distribution systems that lead to consumption of healthy food, grown locally and eaten shortly after harvesting.

$15 for a movie-is a rip off, especially for a mediocre film. Hence the increasing shift to home entertainment.

With $15 I can buy a kilo of pork at Barossa Meats in the Adelaide Central market. Good lamb and costs $25+ a kilo. Organic beef is from around $35 a kilo. We are not talking about several kgs of beef by any stretch.

Kelly Burke has a piece in the SMH that starts:

Misleading marketing and deliberately deceptive labels are being used by large producers to con consumers into thinking they are buying ethically produced food.

The food industry uses weasel words as a form of deception. So much for industry self-regulation of labelling

it is well known that there is a big problem between the farm gate and the consumer. the problem ist hat Australia had the most concentrated supermarket duopoly in the OECD, with Coles and Woolworths holding 80 per cent of market share.

What is happening is that the lower farm prices that Coles and Woolworths are extracting from farmers are not being passed on to consumers. Farmers are being screwed down, but grocery prices are going up.

The difference is being pocketed by the supermarket duopoly.The Rudd Government is not planning to take them on. The Howard government did nothing for all their talk about free markets. The ACCC doesn't even think there is a problem.

gary, you hit the nail on the head, albeit by accident.

It's the transport, refrigeration and processing side that has to adapt. And ultimately the consumer.

you are making the mistake of confusing retail price with that of what the farmer receives. 500g of wheat will provide 7500Kj of energy, i think the daily requirement of a human. About 10c worth of wheat. We can quibble over the price of the ticket, but that is 100+ days of sustainance.
Pigs are for instance around $3/kg live weight. Boned out that'll be $6/kg and keep you adequately nourished for a couple of weeks. You'll need more friends to split a cow, but beefs not a lot more expensive than pork at the saleyard. Admitly that means more work on the part of the consumer, but isn't that the likely outcome of any sustainability push. The third world consumer doesn't purchase the refined products that we do, and still devotes a much larger part of their income to food.

A lot of your points and those of Micheal Pollan centre on energy and resource use of the food chain as a whole. But the farmers are the efficient ones, we can maintain production via bio-fuel use, no different than feeding horses or oxen in the past. It means eating a lot more beans and peas though.

The truth of the matter is that until city wastes are returned to lands from which they originated no farming system can be sustainable. Ultimately it's urban living that is not sustainable. There is little point blaming the supply chain.

As an example of primary producers getting screwed to the wall by Colesworths, most dairy producers are losing money. I've been told of one large dairy that was losing close to $100,000 per month.

Let's not even get started on the egg industry.

"The truth of the matter is that until city wastes are returned to lands from which they originated no farming system can be sustainable."

Especially in a land of old dust like Australia. On that score farmers' problems are exacerbated by their own refusal to consider more sustainable practices.

DINY on dairy producers getting screwed,

And yet, the dairy aisle is starting to look like the breakfast cereal aisle. Ten thousand kinds of milk with varying amounts of actual milk in them.

Lyn, not all australia is old dust but thats not really the point. Nor a basis for unsustainability.

Change current practices to what exactly? organic farming is not the answer, not until people return to the land and close the nutrient cycle.

How do we increase income levels to farmers to be able to use more human labour, whether that be people surviving on small holdings or current farmers employing more.

Peter, I hear you. The problem though lies with consumer choice, the convienience of the large supermarket outweighing inferior service and/or product.

My gripe with supermarkets would be the lack of loyalty to Australian produce. Cheapest source and highest margin wins. Where's the sustainability of importing tinned tomatoes? The consumer is wage protected but that protection is not applied to the producer.

the consumer is changing ---eg., farmers markets. They are very popular in Willunga on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia where they are associated with the regional food culture.

Wholesale prices farmers get for their produce are very low, often near the cost of production. Farmers who sell direct to the public without going through a middle man get a better price. And the consumer gets a better product.

It is argued that farmers' markets allow farmers to pick produce at the peak of flavor, preserve the nutritional content of fresh produce, and since locally-grown produce does not travel as far to get to your table, the difference in mileage saves fossil fuels.

farmers markets are great, both for friendly service and quality food.

We certainly have lost the "seasonality" of fruit and veg. It's too easy to have californian oranges or grapes on the shelf and we don't appreciate our local product as much when it is in season.

We do have to be careful not to get too fixated with food miles though, it may in fact be more resource efficient to grow crops where they grow best than simply growing them closeby.

Michael Pollan's advice strikes me as sensible: shop only around the edges of the supermarket, avoid anything made in a lab and never, ever eat anything that won't rot.

Also Nan, if you can't pronounce it, you probably shouldn't put it in your mouth.