Saturday, 27 August 2011

the problem of obesity and food shortage

The Independent newspaper yesterday had a front page article UK fat alert: 26 million will be obese by 2030. A tax on unhealthy food was suggested but the government and the food industry have dismissed this idea.

It is interesting that earlier this month the Ice Cream Alliance appealed to the Treasury for VAT to be taken off the price of ice cream. Poor summer weather and the rising cost of raw materials have hit profits for ice cream producers. I didn't realise that there was VAT on ice cream, I thought food didn't have VAT on it, but luxury foods are charged VAT.

It seems to me that an easy way to help the obesity problem would be to reassess what we mean by luxury food, and start charging VAT on more foods high in fat and sugar. It would also help with another major problem, the global availability of food. It seems strange that obesity (caused by an abundance of food) could have a relationship to hunger (caused by food shortages).

In this week's New Scientist magazine the researcher Yaneer Bar-Yam discussed the increased probability of social unrest in the world due to rises in the price of food. He said that there are two main reasons why prices have gone up.

Firstly, financial speculators have moved investment money from mortgage markets to commodity markets. This has caused a hike in all commodity prices, including crops. This is different from an increase due to supply and demand.

Secondly, there has been an enormous increase in the USA of the conversion of maize to ethanol for biofuel. 40% of US maize is now used for biofuel, which is about 15% of global production.

He doesn't say anything about crops like maize and soya being used in increasing amounts to feed animals. This is an enormously inefficient system that converts large amounts of healthy food (wheat, maize, soya) into a smaller amount of unhealthy food (meat and dairy products) and making it more expensive. If we put VAT on any meat from an animal that was fed on imported maize and soya, and some dairy products, then we would help the problem of obesity in affluent countries while also helping with food shortages.

People think they need lots of meat and dairy produce to get the protein they need, but this is not true. People overestimate how much protein they and their children need. It is easy to get all the protein you need from grains and beans. Meat has iron as well as protein, and dairy products have calcium, but iron and calcium can be obtained from plants.

Egg and milk production seems to be more efficient than meat production, so perhaps they should escape VAT. Fish and seafood are another source of animal protein and should not have VAT. Some animal protein is beneficial in the diet. Meat from cattle or sheep that have eaten mostly grass on a farm where the land is unsuitable for crops should not have VAT. Similarly if animals are used as part of a crop rotation system. Apparently it is more efficient to produce mutton than lamb, so eating mutton (and hogget) should be encouraged. People should be encouraged to eat less popular cuts of meat and offal.

Another thing we can do is refuse planning permission for any CAFOs in this country (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) such as the proposed mega dairy at Nocton.

We should also put a stop to using crops as biofuels. It was a good idea but it doesn't work. There should be more public transport, and densely-populated countries like China and India should be encouraged to develop public transport instead of building multi-lane highways for cars. That way the demand for fuel will not be so great. I would like to see areas in many cities where people don't use cars. Then all of the advantages of a car-free life can be more easily seen. Noise, air pollution, death through accidents, emergency services not being able get to their destination quickly and lengthened journey times are all things that decrease quality of life.

There are a number of things we can do to alleviate the twin problems of obesity in the affluent world and food shortages in the poor world. Putting VAT on certain foods would be an easy step to take and make a big contribution.