Corinna Hawkes, Professor of Food Policy, Director, Centre for Food Policy, University of London City
Professor Hawkes, you have talked in the session about the different barriers that we face when trying to make food systems healthier, would you be able to mention some examples?
CH: If we want to have better health, we need better diets, and this can only be achieved through creating better food systems. There are many barriers towards this aim, but there are also a lot of opportunities.
One of the major barriers is the economic incentives that exist in the food industry. These economic incentives make companies compete with each other to sell more products and increase profit margins. So, if unhealthy foods are profitable, they are going to be produced. On the other hand, products which are less profitable have less presence in the market.
The industry, however, argues that people’s behaviour is what shapes the food systems rather than economic incentives. For example, sugary drinks are still in the market because the population would stop buying them if they didn’t have added sugar. I do believe this is partly true, however, the economic incentives are also an important factor contributing to perpetuate the food system that we have nowadays. If companies didn’t have incentives to sell more unhealthy foods, these products would be less consumed. So, in summary, the economic incentives are the biggest barriers towards creating a healthy food system that helps people to have better diets.
And, how, in your opinion, could we get around these barriers from a national and European perspectives?
CH: It is a very difficult and complex issue. Food systems have a wide impact. For example, one of the most important consequences of the high-consumption system that we have is that it leads to climate change. It is difficult to change it because it reflects the way our economy is set up. We have a consumer-oriented economy. Thus, if we want to improve diets, we need to change how our economy operates and the model of business incentives. Currently, food companies respond to shareholders who want big profit-margins. This is how the whole system operates, the industry answers to these shareholders and, therefore, they are obliged to achieve big profit margins, regardless of the health impact of the food product.
Although it is difficult to change how the economy operates, there are a lot of things that we can do within this system. One thing we can do is to make sure that every person in Europe and around the world, when they get up in the morning, and wherever they go during the day, are surrounded by healthy foods that we know they should be consuming more often. For example, if I stand now, I see food over there [points to a bowl of fruit in the EHFG reception desk]. If I’m hungry, I will eat that, whether it is healthy food like fruit, or unhealthy sugary products. That is already one thing we can do. By changing the environment and making healthy choices easier, we can improve diets.
I believe this should be the first step. To change the environment surrounding a person’s life. We can change the environment in supermarkets, the labelling of food products, we can reduce the negative nutrients in the food. We can also improve food education and skills in the population, or make healthy products more affordable. There is also room for improvement in the work-place environment, ensuring that workers have enough time off, so they can go home and prepare a healthy meal for their children.
Unfortunately, as soon you start to implement these interventions, you find barriers in the food system. For example, you can try and make fruit more present everywhere, but some will argue that is not possible because you need a refrigeration system, as the fruit does not last long, so it will end up in waste. It is very important that we foresee these barriers and think about ways to fix them.
In summary, there is a massive barrier in the way business incentives work, but within that, there are many things we can do.
What is the role that food subsidies play in changing the food environment? Is it possible to create healthy food environments without changing the price structure?
CH: Changing the price is changing the environment. I think we should aim to improve affordability of healthy foods. For me, the main argument is: what needs to come first? We need to understand why people eat what they do and then identify what we can do about that. Price is important, but it is not only about price. It is a mistake to think that making healthy foods more affordable will fix everything.
There is a lot of evidence on this, particularly from studies that have focused on how people, with a low socio-economic background, make decisions around food. A recent study interviewed people from deprived areas shopping in a supermarket that has lowered the price of healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables. The results showed that around half of the people said that the fact that healthy products were more affordable had a positive impact and made them increase its consumption. However, the other half said that it didn’t make a difference. They argued that there are other factors that acted as barriers towards increasing consumption of healthy foods. For example, lack of skills in preparing these foods, lack of kitchen tools, or simply the fact that they don’t like the way they taste.
So, there are various different reasons why people don’t eat well and, therefore, we need to act at different levels. We can act at a national level, but it is also important to act at a city-level. Cities have a major role to play in improving diets because they can identify the main barriers in their own populations, and do something about it.
Would you be able to give us any examples of any successful interventions at a city-level?
CH: A good example is Amsterdam’s commitment to reduce obesity. Although obesity is not a big problem in Amsterdam compared with other places around Europe, the prevalence of obesity has gone down, and it has also gone down in people from lower socio-economic groups, which is unusual. We are not sure why that is, but we know that they have a very active healthy-weight programme. For me, the most important thing is that they have said: “We have a problem with obesity and we are going to fix it”. Because as soon as you make a real deep commitment that you are going to fix something, you find a way of doing it. As they are implementing many policy measures, we don’t know which ones are working, but what does seem to work is that there is a political commitment, and everyone is saying: “Right, we are going to do it”. When you make such a commitment, you need to be prepared to accept failure, because not everything is going to work. However, if you accept it and start again doing different things until you achieve your objective, you have a good chance of success. So, it means humility, it means innovation, and it means acting at different places. One thing they have done is to take the retailers on board with success. What happens when there is commitment from the top and you create a positive vibe, is that you find that the different actors stop blaming others and start taking responsibility, because they perceive that they have to do whatever they can. I’m in academia, but I would like to be part of a system where you don’t get away with not acting, where instead of pointing fingers to others asking them what they are doing, you start asking to yourself: “What am I doing to improve the food system? Yes, this is what I am doing as part of the system to address this problem”. But to do that, you need someone in a leadership position putting everything together.
So, one thing that needs to happen is commitment and leadership. Systems’ leadership of someone who understands how everything works together and is committed to solve the problems that we have with our food system.
The interview was conducted by the Young Gasteiners Karl Kirchoff and Alberto Mateo (Young Forum Gastein Scholars 2017). The report of the interview was written by Alberto Mateo.