The global food industry has been the subject of intense scrutiny – and criticism – over the past year from actors as diverse as journalist Michael Pollan, environmentalist Vandana Shiva, and Prince Charles of Britain.
Their main contentions: the unsustainable mass production (and waste) of cheap food; the harmful health effects of agrochemicals, global inequities in food distribution, resulting in famines; inadequate food safety regulations; farm land grabs by richer nations; and the questionable practice patenting Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) by large multi-national companies that both exploit communities and damage the environment. With the recent death of Norman Borlaug, father of the first Green Revolution, the debate about how to produce, distribute and consume food fairly and sustainably for a world of eight billion has reached a peak.
There is another, more personal, battleground in the food fight – that of health and nutrition. These include the issues of poor hygiene standards in food production, the lack of nutritious food in school canteens, the health effects of processed foods, and the “obesity epidemic”. With much of the world’s food controlled by large corporations and regulated by big government, the two sets of issues – unsustainable methods and unhealthy content – are not unrelated.
Professor Albert EJ McGill, Director of food consultancy firm Future for Food, and currently Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Chemistry shared a refreshingly honest perspective on the ethical dilemmas within the food profession at “The Food Professional’s Dilemma – a healthy diet or a healthy profit?”, a public seminar hosted by the Masters of Science in Environmental Management programme at the School of Design and Environment, NUS.
A former food scientist, Prof. McGill highlighted the importance of keeping the concept of “food” separate from that of agriculture, diet and health. In his view, food needs to be seen holistically as an integral aspect of cultural practices and social interactions; people who ‘eat’ do so as much for meaningful experiences and personal happiness, as they do for ‘nutrition’.
However, dietary guidelines that specify what, how much, and how often one should eat are set by committees overwhelmingly dominated by medical experts and food scientists. Here, certain foods and nutrient groups, depending on the latest research, are labeled as ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘eat sparingly’ – while the food professionals themselves are wont to ignore their own advice!
The key issue is: What makes us eat what we do? Dietary guidelines? Come on!
Food choices are determined by both supply and demand: agribusinesses such as Kellogg are frequently accused of saturating the children’s cereal market with high-sugar, high-fat products, and advertising them on prime time TV – but if permissive parents didn’t allow their children to stock the supermarket trolley, such foods would never have the wide-ranging impact they do.
Food choices are also affected by peer group dynamics and specific cultural contexts of eating. Prof. McGill highlighted the hilarious case study of Jamie Oliver vs. Rotherham, South Yorkshire – where parents rebelling against the chef’s healthy eating campaigns pushed fast food through the school gates to their children. He also asked the pointed question: If your friends were thinking of heading to McDonald’s for brunch, would you say no – on nutritional grounds?
The fact remains: eating is part of our economic and social lives. Fast food remains the cheapest supply of quick calories for people-on-go. These include students, office workers, busy parents; in other words, the most common social roles in contemporary society.
Recognizing this, it becomes clear that food ethics is as much the domain of food professionals as it is the responsibility of food consumers like ourselves. Certainly, the food industry is culpable for misrepresenting the food that is sells; however, our demand for quick, cheap, and tasty food has, in part, necessitated the mass production of processed foods and the employment of technologies and marketing methods to enhance the appearance, shelf-life and cultural ubiquity of such foods.
Food politics is our domain of action. The industry, through its dietary guidelines and scientific research, as well as civil society, with its undercover activism and advocacy, have already provided us the information we need to make an informed choice.
The rest is up to us.