Kaj Embren

Honest and Healthy Food

An increasing number of people, myself included, are demanding more from what we eat. The discussion of horse meat will push the food industry to the front of the debate. And it is more than one question to be raised about values and ethics in the industrial process of food and its supply chain. The availability of eco-friendly, organic products has visibly improved in recent years, as people take a greater interest in what they consume and how it impacts the world around them. But, still a growing problem for our society.

– This facts coming from an article in the New York Times the last week – The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food scared me.

– One in three adults is considered clinically obese, along with one in five kids, and 24 million Americans are afflicted by type 2 diabetes, often caused by poor diet, with another 79 million people having pre-diabetes. Even gout, a painful form of arthritis once known as “the rich man’s disease” for its associations with gluttony, now afflicts eight million Americans.

This is not just a problem for consumers in America. The use of antibiotics and additives in the food production cycle is a major global issue. Regardless of where in the world you live, food producers will use shortcuts to boost profits.

This is not sustainable development.

It is time for both agriculture and the food industry to accelerate a move towards a more sustainable society. A society in which producers work together with consumers to incorporate economic, social and ecological values into their business strategies.

The importance of sustainable food production reaches far beyond the dinner table. It feeds into a complex system of global justice and consumption patterns. It also ties in with climate change, as fossil fuels are used in connection with transportation, heating and fertilizer production.

Public health is another hugely important factor in the food standards debate. Obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and a number of cancers are all on the rise in Europe. The latest studies from the World Health Organization show that between 30 and 70 per cent of the continents’ adult population is considered overweight and between 10 and 30 per cent are classed as obese. Studies have also shown that children’s intake of nutrients is far too low and I wonder how the younger generations will look and feel in the future if nothing changes.

But amidst these worrying trends there are some examples of successful campaigns that have raised awareness about the quality of what we eat and inspired real changes in the food market.

In Jamie Oliver’s TED talk, he describes his encounters with countless American children that could not even name a tomato or potato. It is a worrying thought. But Jamie’s ability to positively influence people’s behavior gives me hope that, with education, individuals will take greater responsibility for what they eat. Having seen his campaigns in both England and the USA, I understand the power of change that he carries.

I was also reminded of a less high-profile, though no less inspiring, example from a trip to Japan a few years ago. Here I visited some local consumer groups that had successfully changed the rules around purchasing vegetables from local farmers. The number of local cooperative HAN (a group involving 6-10 families) groups now total over 1000 and Japan’s consumer cooperatives have more than 14 million members collectively. One of these groups, Seikatsu Club, even won the Right Livelihood Award (also know as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’) in the 1990s. The Japanese model is fundamentally changing the relationship between consumers and producers in local markets.

Japan’s success is based on consumer demand and wider global trends also show an evolving marketplace. Organic products sales increased by 8.8 per cent in 2010 and they continue to expand, according to a recent study by the ethical bank, Triodos. The UK appears to have the strongest local growth of organic products, making up between 23 and 29 per cent of sales for dairy products, fruits and vegetables. As many as 8 out of 10 UK households bought organic products in 2011.

But demand for sustainably-produced food is only half the answer. The other half is supply, which currently struggles to meet our changing consumption patterns.

But, my question, will be addressed to the Co-op and its Consumer Movement that once in a time was a leading opinion maker and educator for households and schools – Time to wake up?

Kaj Embrén


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  1. I fully agree with your analysis and share your concerns about sustainability from a public health point of view. My further advise is to translate your thoughts into action.

    A crucial EU policy which touches upon the issues of sustainable food production is the ongoing CAP reform. I truly hope that your arguments will reach the respected decision makers, especially the MEPs who will vote about the CAP reform next week.

    I remain at your disposal.


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