The politics of food.

AuthorNazeer, Kamran
PositionNotebook - Essay

Two-thirds of men and 60 per cent of women in the UK are either overweight or obese. Not only are we eating too much, we are eating the wrong things: merely 14 per cent of men and 27 per cent of women eat the recommended five portions of fruit or vegetables per day. These are terrifying statistics, especially when we consider the sharp upward trend in the first pair of figures, which also reflects how pervasive the problem of obesity is becoming amongst children and young people.

We have clearly developed a dysfunctional relationship to food--characterised by over-consumption and under-nourishment. Some form of collective response seems necessary, perhaps including action by government. And we have seen the beginnings of this response, ranging from, in the market, an increase in the sales of low-calorie processed foods, to, as a matter of public policy, restrictions on what foods can be advertised to children. There are a range of issues under the broad rubric of food policy, including obesity but also the use of industrial production techniques, genetic engineering, the market dominance of supermarkets, and food miles; and interest in these issues is deepening, with broad consequences for how we produce food, what we eat, and even our relationship to nature. Yet I believe that the politics of food creates particular problems for the progressive left. This article aims to describe these problems and to suggest a progressive response.

Why the left is badly suited to the politics of food

One way to focus the problem for the left is to look at a particular issue: obesity. A comparative analysis of the figures on obesity quickly reveals that the rates are particularly acute in the US and the UK. Though it is nevertheless increasing, the rate of obesity is significantly lower in France or in Japan, countries with a comparable level of affluence (the seemingly obvious cause of over-consumption). This is an important starting-point because one suggested explanation for the difference in rates of obesity is that France or Japan have retained a traditional culture of food to a much greater extent than either the US and the UK. Hence people are more likely to observe mealtimes and eat freshly prepared food, less likely to snack or eat processed food instead. This is a persuasive argument and, walking through any supermarket or town centre in the UK, observing how processed food and junk food have become our cheapest and most convenient options, confirms that we have lost touch with a culture of fresh, traditional or local food.

But what should we do with this...

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