How Do We Reset the Global Food Economy?

A new way of eating could improve public health, but requires government intervention.

shopping bag with healthy groceries
A shopping bag filled with healthy, zero-waste groceries.

@Anikona via Twenty20

That the Western diet needs to improve has been a serious and much-debated topic of discussion for years, but the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of this more than ever. Good health is a main defence against illness, and new research has shown that being overweight worsens the effects of COVID-19. If we were ever going to overhaul the way people in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom eat and are fed, now's the time.

But How? 

Corinna Hawkes, a professor of food policy at the University of London, has some excellent suggestions in a piece for The Conversation, titled, "Five ways to reboot the global food economy to make it healthier for all." Hawkes addresses the problem of industry lobbyists and the influence Big Food wields over what governments choose to regulate. 

Not being afraid to "take unhealthy foods out of the spotlight and place more nutritious foods center stage" would require some economic sacrifices up front, but if it boosts public health, that will garner significant savings – particularly because, as Hawkes wrote, it's estimated that "businesses around the world lose as much as US$38 billion (£29 billion) a year from undernutrition and obesity among their workforce."

Hawkes offers a five-point plan for "resetting the food economy over the short term." Her advice includes providing financing for healthy food, i.e. vegetable, fruit, and bean growers, instead of subsidizing vast mono-crops like maize, palm oil, and soybeans. This could include investing in smaller, local producers and building food hubs that distribute fresh foods directly to consumers. (I wrote previously about the importance of adding grocery stores to neighborhoods to reduce food waste.)

Next, she suggests that junk food be made less attractive to shoppers. Whether it's through advertising regulations, sugar taxes, or new labeling laws (like the ones introduced in Chile), this could allow "innovators to compete with the junk food industry and appeal to the health conscious."

Hawkes would like to see something akin to B-Corporation Certification for food companies – some sort of instantly recognizable qualification that notifies shoppers of its healthfulness. She calls this "profit with purpose," and it would make diet-related health a main goal of companies.

The article has several more valuable suggestions, but I'd like to add one to the list that I think is very important – educating children in schools about how to have a healthy diet, because when that happens, there can be widespread transformation in a single generation. When that information is not taught at home, a child is bound to struggle with establishing good food habits on his or her own. 

little boy at the farmer's market
A boy learns how to shop at the farmer's market. @nikmock via Twenty20 

Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London, wrote about this recently in the Guardian, saying that school-based food education should be compulsory: 

"With the UK lacking a traditional food culture, most of us are very ignorant. Food education should be a compulsory subject, from nursery school to university, like maths and English... Before leaving school, everyone should be able to prepare a healthy meal from scratch with a few simple ingredients, just as we learn our multiplication tables or how to write a letter."

Understanding how agriculture and food production work, and how the way food is grown affects the natural environment, are crucial concepts for anyone pursuing personal health to understand. 

It's no small task to go up against huge food corporations whose job is to stuff as many of their high-calorie, low-nutrition snacks into our bodies as possible, not to mention breaking decades of poor eating habits and acquired tastes, but try we must. The status quo isn't working, people are sick, and they'll only get sicker as COVID-19 continues to spread. Now's the time to trim our grocery lists, retrain our palates, and demand reform from local governments.