A “Food Governance” conference will be held at the University of Sydney this coming week, with speakers addressing topics such as conflicts of interest in food policy, the use of legislation to reduce population salt intake, and opportunities/challenges in using food regulatory systems to promote public health.
One of the keynotes, Why obesity policy needs food system governance, will be delivered by Professor Corinna Hawkes, Director of the Centre for Food Policy, City University London – who will also give a public oration on Tuesday evening, titled: What are the three biggest challenges facing the food system – and how do we fix them?
Below, Hawkes writes that food governance is currently plagued by incoherent decision-making, confusing language and lousy leadership.
Corinna Hawkes writes:
Don’t get me wrong. It is not simple to fix the food system. In many ways, why would we need to? The system of people, institutions, infrastructure and processes that brings food from farm to fork, gate to plate, boat to throat, is a wonder of innovation, efficiency and choice, involving beautiful landscapes, jobs and wealth, delicious, pleasure-inducing food that brings joy into our days.
Trouble is, there are a hell of a lot of downsides. Stuff like water depletion, soil loss, climate change, misery for low-paid, undervalued, mistreated workers, food that carries deadly diseases, or that kills slowly through obesity and non-communicable diseases. Stuff like 795 million people don’t have access to enough food all of the time.
So while it’s not a total disaster, there is a lot to fix. A lot. How will we do it?
There is no shortage of suggestions: “climate smart” agriculture, sustainable intensification, agroecology, food sovereignty, sugary drinks taxes, gardens, biofortification.
Whatever you think of these suggestions – and they are much debated – the question on my lips is: will they be delivered?
For whatever we say we think will work, none of it matters unless we solve the main underlying problem here: disconnected decision-making that is simply not fit for purpose in delivering solutions to what are very connected problems.
There are some simple steps that can be taken to address this problem. They are steps I will be spelling out in more detail in my opening talk at the Food Governance conference in Sydney this coming week.
Because it is this “food governance” – who makes decisions, how they make them, and who influences them – which so needs to change to address the challenges of the global food system.
At the moment, unfortunately, decision-making is full of incoherence, confusing language and lousy leadership.
For incoherence, take the case of soft drinks. While health departments in governments around the world are trying to rein in consumption, the finance and business departments are providing environments that support industry growth. This is not coherent decision-making.
On language, look at the word “healthy.” What is healthy to one person is not necessarily healthy to another. Walnuts or reduced fat crisps? Walnuts have more fat but more nutritious elements. Which is healthier?
Language is easily manipulated by different interests. The way we are framing and using words like “healthy” leads directly to exclusionary and divisive decision-making.
Then there is leadership — or lack of it. There are some very tricky and complex problems out there. Solving them will take looking at all aspects of the problem and making some judgment calls. Do we want the world to be awash with soda? Or not?
Despite the new Sustainable Development Goals adopted at the UN in 2015, we lack leaders who are listening, learning and, well, leading in making clearer decisions on what we want as a world. That’s perhaps because there is so much diversity, which is no bad thing. But that’s why good governance is so important – to manage diversity rather than to allow power to become overly concentrated in a small number of hands.
So what are some of the simple things we can do to fix this?
First of all, to the governments out there at all levels – local, regional, national, global: hire a “Food Policy Connecting Officer” whose job it is to talk to all the different departments and agencies, learn the different languages, and then figure out what each of these entities can do to address food system challenges, and where more alignment is needed between them.
Pulling meetings together of all the relevant parties is a step in the right direction, but someone is needed there permanently to keep the conversation going.
Second, to the researchers out there: please start using a language that everyone can understand. “Expert” language is making the people of the food system, the people who experience its hardships seem like the stupid ones, not smart enough to be involved in the process of making decisions. They should be. As a very first step lets stop using acronyms and remember (note to self!) that terms like “food system” are also opaque and unhelpful if not properly communicated.
Third, to everyone, lets empathise with each other. Rather than looking down at what our neighbours are buying in the supermarket, remember we are all different, and we all have our reasons.
We tend to be so judgmental around food; let’s have more understanding instead. We can start small to get big. All of us can do that.
Let’s start by meeting people where they are and then working back into the food system. Let’s humanise the food system with a people-centered approach. Frankly, I don’t see any other way.
• Details of the public oration are here.
• This week follow @WePublicHealth for news from the conference.