Introduction by Croakey: A global conference has highlighted the health, social and environmental impacts of food governance and its role in contributing to food insecurity, malnutrition, obesity, health and economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation around the world.
The conference brought together people from a range of disciplines, including public health, law, Indigenous studies, environment, agriculture, nutrition, economics and human rights, to look at the drivers of food systems and to identify levers for change.
Modern systems of capitalism, which have facilitated the growing power of transnational corporations, and the enduring impacts of colonisation and racism were identified as key drivers of unhealthy food governance across the globe.
These are complex issues with no quick fixes, but the conference revealed some common areas of agreement on the domains in which action needs to occur, and highlighted successful initiatives at local and national levels.
The conference also heard about the importance of decolonising food systems and governance, and that recent international agreements provide some promise of achieving a more equitable, sustainable and inclusive approach to food governance.
The conference was supported by the Food Governance Node at the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney; the Global Center for Legal Innovation on Food Environments housed at the O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law at Georgetown University; and The George Institute for Global Health.
Jennifer Doggett writes:
Global food policy has enormous implications for global health and is a key driver of multiple and intersecting health, social and environmental problems.
These problems are not new but have become increasingly urgent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the fragility of global food systems and increased inequalities both between and within countries.
A keynote speaker from the International Food Policy Research Institute, Dr Namukolo Covic, told delegates that more than three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet.
Dr Jamie Morrison from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that over the course of the COVID pandemic, an additional 80-130 million people have been added to the world’s hungry and the number of countries with hunger hotspots has grown to 20.
This increase in hunger is adding to the already disproportionate burden of non-communicable diseases experienced by low and middle income countries (LMICs). In contrast, COVID-19 has fuelled a rise in obesity in many developed countries – which also increases vulnerability to COVID.
In welcoming delegates to the conference, Michael Bloomberg, whose philanthropic organisation includes a food policy program, drew connections between these and other aspects of pandemic resilience and food governance, saying: “More equitable food systems lead to better health outcomes so we will be in better shape when the next pandemic hits.”
Presenters described how the COVID pandemic has affected agrifood systems globally, including impacting the livelihoods and food security of millions of local farmers, providers, retailers and consumers.
Morrison said the economic impact of the agrifood system was so significant, employing one billion people worldwide and indirectly supporting another 3.5 billion, that engagement with this sector was crucial to progress the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
A recurring theme of the conference was that achieving broader social and environmental goals relies on reforming current food systems and that this cannot be achieved without looking at the underlying factors that shape modern political economies, including capitalism and colonisation.
“Public health apocalypses”
The role of modern capitalism in driving public health crises was highlighted in a keynote conversation between Professor Amandine Garde, Professor of Law at the University of Liverpool, and Professor Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York School of Public Health.
Freudenberg described how 21st century capitalism has contributed to food insecurity and other public health crises through:
- deregulation of global markets
- corporate ownership of science
- monopoly concentrations in food markets which reduce the power of government and citizens.
He said these factors have resulted in a system of corporately managed globalisation, leading to supply chain problems, inequitable trade arrangements and restrictive intellectual property regimes.
These are compounded by financial systems that favour short term profits, deregulation and privatisation over environmental protections and public health.
Freudenberg challenged attendees to ask, “What are the drivers of this and what can stop it?” in order to “create political, scientific and administrative processes to transform our food system”.
Freudenberg and other speakers identified three issues relevant to food governance that are a direct result of modern capitalism: the growth in ultra-processed foods; the increasing power of corporations; and the relationship between food systems and poverty.
Freudenberg described how 21st century capitalism has facilitated the growth of ultra-processed food because they are:
- easy to ship and store
- easy to market
- dependent on a small number of commodities, (wheat sugar, palm oil)
- hyper-palatable, habituating ensuring lifetime customers.
He discussed how ultra-processed foods have become a driver of racial inequities in health, leading to rises in cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes in lower and middle income countries (LMICs) and in populations of colour in affluent countries.
Dr Carlos Monteiro, Professor of Nutrition and Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil and member of the WHO Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group, discussed his work on the NOVA classification system for processed foods, which has been critical in informing policies in this area.
Monteiro discussed how the modern, globalised food system has moved away from using food processing techniques to preserve foods and to make preparation easier, towards a focus on maximising profits by creating hyper-palatable and convenient food products that are grossly inferior imitations of minimally processed foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals.
He attributes much of the growth in obesity, type 2 diabetes and related diseases to the increased consumption of ultra-processed food, which he said has pushed the health systems of many countries to breaking point.
Both Monteiro and Freudenberg identified modern capitalism as a key driver of the growth in ultra-processed foods and stressed that there was no magic bullet to solve this issue.
Freudenberg highlighted the role of social movements in driving changes to current food systems, including farm workers’ movements, students fighting for better food, environmentalists linking food and climate justice’ and family practice doctors calling for grassroots changes in their communities.
“We need to forge a policy agenda including reducing global consolidation of the food industry, improving the pay and working conditions of food workers, protecting and strengthening democracy and finding synergies between healthy diets and a healthy planet,” he said.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health at the United Nations, highlighted how corporations exert significant power over the diets of people all over the world.
She described how this influence is the result of well-resourced and sustained efforts by food and beverage industry to design beverages which are hyper-palatable and marketable.
Mofokeng said corporations have focussed their influence on the global south as profits decline in the global north due to policy and regulatory actions taken by governments of more affluent countries.
She also criticised corporations for hiding behind donations to charities and corporate social responsibility activities while they continue to contribute to health, social and environmental problems.
Mofokeng argued that decolonising global food governance is required to reduce the influence of corporations and systems of power, which she said causes “capitalistic violence on communities”.
A human rights-based approach to reducing the influence of the global food industry was taken by Professor Amandine Garde, Director of the Law and Non-Communicable Diseases Research Unit at the University of Liverpool.
Garde discussed her research demonstrating that self-regulation of the food industry has failed and argued that government regulation is crucial to reduce the power of corporations.
Garde argued that states should be accountable under human rights law and required to report to human rights bodies on their approach to food policy.
She also stated that the United Nations should be accountable for documenting the impact of corporations, as under the UN guiding principles businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights.
“People affected by these policies should drive policies and regulations, not corporations,” she said.
The intersection between food governance and wealth was discussed in a number of conference presentations.
One example of how economic status can impact diet even in wealthy countries came from Meron Lewis, a PhD candidate from the University of Queensland. Her study found that less than four percent of Australians consume a healthy diet but that this figure drops significantly for children in low socioeconomic status communities.
Lewis’s research used the healthy diets “ASAP protocol” to compare the cost of a healthy diet to the actual food intake of a range of people.
She found that people on low incomes had a similar energy intake level, compared with the general population, but that a greater proportion of their energy intake came from their favourite unhealthy food.
Her research emphasises the importance of an equity lens to better target dietary guidelines for people in low SES groups and highlights the need for urgent policy action to help improve affordability of recommended diets.
In Australia, this could include maintaining the GST-free status of fresh food and increasing the GST on unhealthy food.
Decolonisation was a major theme of the conference. Speakers described how current systems of food governance privilege white norms and values, and reinforce the power relations of colonisation while marginalising Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng said that no conversation about food governance would be complete without a discussion of decolonisation, racism and power asymmetries.
She described how colonial legacies have generational impacts on food security, due to dispossession from land which creates a nutrition vacuum and forces people to buy less nutritious processed food.
Key strategies identified at the conference included: participatory and inclusive forms of food governance, the inclusion of Indigenous knowledges and a focus on diverse voices and co-design.
The conference heard that prior to colonisation, Indigenous peoples cared for Country and had innovative and sustainable food systems.
This changed with the colonisation, which introduced refined sugars, starches and salt into traditional diets, leading to increased chronic diseases among Indigenous populations worldwide.
Speakers also highlighted the importance of having connection to traditional food practices for psychological and social wellbeing.
A number of examples were given of Indigenous knowledges being incorporated into global food governance, including efforts by the UN Committee on Food Security to incorporate Indigenous knowledges.
An Australian example of how Indigenous knowledges and practices can inform food governance practices was provided by PhD student, Beau Cubillo, a Larrakia and Wadjigan researcher from the Northern Territory.
Cubillo described how seafood is not just a source of nourishment for Aboriginal people but is incorporated in social domains of identity and culture, with cultural fishing rights seen as important as land rights.
Cubillo’s research has focussed on the Aboriginal fishing enterprise in Maningrida and used Indigenous methodologies, such as yarning circles, as well as field trips and interviews with informants.
His project explores the relationships between Indigenous health and wellbeing and seafood in an Indigenous knowledge domain though a multidimensional approach. This included localised documentation and representation of Indigenous knowledges of the nutritional health and wellbeing benefits, values and meanings of seafood, and nutritional analysis of fish and seafood species.
The research will contribute new knowledge to ensure the development of Indigenous fisheries is sensitive to health, nutritional and wellbeing values and meanings of culturally important seafood, he said.
Cubillo highlighted the importance of knowledge held by Elders who have lived experience of how seafood has been used for food, art and medicine. He also discussed the stress experienced by Elders if this knowledge is lost.
Cubillo stressed the importance of co-design in researching food issues impacting Indigenous people and called for greater recognition of the broad health and nutritional benefits of food policies, such as access to country, reduced barriers of access and knowledge transfer.
Other presentations highlighted the need for more Indigenous researchers and policy makers.
As an example, Dr Mark Lock, Casual Research Fellow at Deakin University, said that he was unusual as an Indigenous person doing systematic reviews, and that “Equity in the food environment requires equity in the research process”.
Dr Jennifer Browne, research fellow at Deakin University, pointed out that reviews undertaken by Indigenous researchers are important in uncovering food system issues that were not understood before, such as the stigma associated with using the Basics Card and the racism experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in supermarkets and when trying to access nutrition education.
While presenters identified some areas of progress, Associate Professor Renzo Guinto from St Luke’s College of Medicine pointed out that Indigenous voices are on still the margins of many debates relevant to food governance, including debates about climate change.
The conference heard about recent initiatives that are attempting to change food governance, at the local, national and international levels.
While there are some clear areas of progress, presenters acknowledged major challenges remain in coordinating actions across jurisdictions and sectors, and in addressing joint health, economic, social and environmental goals.
The role of recent international events, such as the UN Food Systems Summit and COP 26, were discussed in a number of presentations and panel discussions.
Professor Boyd Swinburn, from the University of Auckland, expressed scepticism about the role of large international summits in driving meaningful changes. However, Morrison said if done well, they can help raise issues and build consensus around what’s important.
Morrison described how the UN Summit had been forced to follow a different process due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said that the process used – including a series of national dialogues in 148 countries globally, supplemented by over 1000 other dialogues – helped generate a paradigm shift on how important food systems are in supporting inclusiveness and democracy.
One positive outcome of this process is that 109 countries have articulated pathways to take their food systems forward. Morrison commented that even though there are implementation challenges with these pathways, this is still a positive step.
Morrison argued that the UN Summit demonstrated that we need to be simultaneously achieving different outcomes. For example, the Coalition on Zero Hunger looks at actions which are more environmentally sustainable, climate sensitive and those which would generate greater levels of income for those more vulnerable in the food system.
While presenters felt that COP26 was less successful in addressing food systems issues, Morrison said he was encouraged to see they were debated more this year than at previous COPs, and felt a willingness among participants to focus more on food at COP 27 next year.
He mentioned two important agreements relevant to food governance arising from COP 26: The Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use; and the Global Methane Pledge between the European Union and the USA to curb methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
However, he also noted challenges to improving food governance systems at the global level, including the large number of poorly coordinated international organisations involved and the inconsistent views between countries about the role these organisations should play.
Carlos Monteiro said the Summit was a “unique opportunity to urge countries to implement policy interventions required to reduce ultra-processed food production, distribution and consumption, while simultaneously making fresh or minimally processed foods more available, accessible and affordable”.
Despite some success in addressing ultra-processed food issues, Monteiro acknowledged that the Summit could have done better in involving and listening to global voices.
While many participants supported a greater role for international approaches to reforms of food systems, including calling for formal agreements similar to those governing in international trade, a presentation from Dr Lana Elliot, from the Queensland University of Technology, challenged this strategy.
Elliot discussed the implementation of a sugar sweetened beverages tax (SSBT) in Fiji and Vanuatu, and questioned whether its introduction reflected the priorities of the local communities or was pushed by global actors with little knowledge of local needs.
Her research found that the SSBT had very little impact on the health of the Fijian and Vanuatuan communities but came at a high opportunity cost due to their small population and constrained resources.
Elliot stressed the need to contextualise policy responses, arguing that what works in big countries may not be appropriate in smaller places.
Rather than a SSBT, she suggested that reducing the cost of locally grown fruit and vegetables would have been more effective in increasing the quality of food available to local communities in Fiji and Vanuatu.
There may be no simple strategies to address the growing need for global food governance reform, but the conference clearly identified the key ingredients of successful reform processes.
- understanding the political economy of food systems
- building coalitions across sectors
- including Indigenous knowledges and perspectives
- harnessing the power of broader social movements
- focusing on equity and inclusivity
- working towards multiple aims simultaneously: nutrition, environmental, social and economic.
The importance of individual action was also stressed by Dr Namukolo Covic, Senior Research Coordinator at the International Food Policy Research Institute, who said:
Each one of us can do something different today.
It does not have to be a grand idea – I can start by what I choose to put on my plate.
I can do my bit and collectively we can make a difference.”
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Keynote Speech: Decolonising Global Food Governance
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng
Keynote conversation: Professor Amandine Garde and Professor Nick Freudenberg