Food policy is such an important – and contested – space that we should have a Food Minister, in Cabinet, according to Michael Moore, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, and Associate Professor Heather Yeatman of the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wollongong.
Making the case for a Ministry for Food
Michael Moore and Heather Yeatman write:
Strange bedfellows have been calling for the establishment of a Ministry for Food in the Federal Government. The idea is for the Government to take greater responsibility for creating a healthy, sustainable food system by creating a Ministerial portfolio for food to coordinate whole-of-government action, headed by a Cabinet Minister.
In other words, government should focus a number of existing and potential policy activities on the thing they have in common – food.
Following the launch of A Future for Food 2 by the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) (available here), Kate Carnell, the CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) joined in the call. The press release from the AFGC stated “Industry has echoed calls by the PHAA to establish a Ministry of Food to ensure Australia has a safe, affordable, nutritious and sustainable food supply into the future.”
The complexity of food policy and the range of stakeholders are behind these calls for a joint approach. The food system includes production and trade, processing, retailing, marketing and promotion through to the health impact of what people eat. It includes science, research and waste and must include economic impact, employment, productivity, national security and much more.
The PHAA and AFGC are already working together under the guidance of Catherine King, the Parliamentary Secretary for Health. She chairs the ‘Food and Health Dialogue’ which also includes retail and fast food representatives as well as the Heart Foundation and seeks to encourage reformulation of food such as the removal of significant amounts of salt from the bread.
However, when the government announced its intention to adopt a National Food Plan, the Parliamentary Secretary was overlooked in favour of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Senator Ludwig’s Department is consulting widely in an attempt to cover all the stakeholders and the wide area of impact on every aspect of every Australian’s life. However, he has a portfolio responsibility that must put agriculture and economic development at the forefront of thinking.
From the public health perspective, three of the issues that are core to food policy are diet and chronic illness; food security; and sustainability, especially the links between diet and the environment. At a time when Australians are becoming more and more obese and chronic disease is on the rise, it is time to give priority to the growing impact of the type of food that is available and the way we eat. This will have impact on productivity, on-going costs of pharmaceuticals, medical and hospitalisation to name just a few of concerns. The current food system is skewed towards energy dense foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. We need to make healthy food choices the easiest and most affordable option for all Australians.
Healthy food is not equitably available or affordable for all Australians. With 5% of the Australian population or over a million Australians being food insecure, it should be a concern for Australian governments. But current policies fail to address this – not even to systematically monitor if the situation is improving or becoming worse. In addition, people experiencing food insecurity often have the poorest quality diets for health, as saturated fat and sugar are the cheaper food components.
What should not be forgotten in the focus on food and health is the link with environmental sustainability. Our food choices, with the emphasis on animal products, contribute significantly to Australia’s total ecological footprint. We should also be concerned that climate change, and other social and economic pressures, are impacting on the availability of quality agricultural land and hence on the capacity of Australia to produce enough food for our needs in the future. It’s fortunate that healthy food choices are also the ones that contribute to sustainability of the environment.
A Cabinet Minister with responsibility for food would be able to concentrate on the winners and losers in food policy decisions. At the moment what is lost with such a wide range of silos is the disproportionate impact of decisions on the socio-economically disadvantaged, while those who have power in Canberra are able to pursue their interests with vigour. Vested interests must not drive the policy decisions of governments. The food-related research and policy actions of government in the different sectors of health, primary industry, environment and social justice must also be connected.
There is a far better chance of achieving these goals of a safe, nutritious, affordable, secure and environmentally sustainable food system that is accessible to all Australians for health, wellbeing and prosperity now and into the future if there is a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for food.