Many of us will have overindulged this festive season. According to the British Diatetics Association, the average Brit puts on half a stone at Christmas. And it is not just Christmas Day itself, ‘the whole festive season is riddled with fat traps’.
After Christmas, we end up throwing a disgusting amount of food away. Part of the UK’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign, a WRAP study in 2012, found that over Christmas, we chuck out the equivalent of 2m turkeys, 5m Christmas puddings and 74m mince pies.
While food waste is often binned and then forgotten about, in August this year people in the London borough of Kingston upon Thames were reminded what happens to some of this waste when a giant ball of congealed fat was found clogging up the borough’s sewers. At 15 tonnes, this was declared the largest fatberg in British history (if you’re squeamish, look away now).
Massive over-eating combined with excessive food waste, all at a time of continued economic hardship, when more people than ever before are relying on food banks in the UK, presents an inefficient and wasteful picture of our consumption of food in the UK, but also one with dangerous health, safety and environmental implications. And Christmas excess is just the tip of the fatberg.
Understanding Food systems and critically why, despite there being enough for everyone, one in eight people around the world do not have enough to eat, is a priority for Oxfam. Our Good Enough to Eat Index
, published this week, looks at the food system from a globally comparative perspective. It draws on data from eight different country level indicators related to people’s food consumption around the world. These indicators fall into four categories that capture whether people have enough to eat, the cost of food, the quality of food and the extent to which people eat unhealthily.
This is obviously not the last word on the matter; the food industry is big and globally diverse and there are many other food-map factors that influence what a person eats, from cultural influences to the marketing power of food companies. The production side of food also deserves urgent attention, with critical issues from food supply chains to impact on climate change raising important challenges at the local, national and global level. But limitations aside, this Index does offer a useful snapshot of some of the food challenges affecting different countries around the world.
At the bottom of the Index, we find countries that are faced with the compounding challenges of limited food, high food prices and poor food quality. Ranked bottom is Chad, where more than a third of children are underweight, food prices are third highest of all the 125 countries on the Index and just half the population has access to clean water.
At the same time, countries at the top of the Index are eating too much of the wrong foods, resulting in a major 21st century health crisis. In the top scoring country, the Netherlands, almost a quarter of the population are obese. Obesity carries a serious risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, not to mention the more hard-to-measure implications for mental health and self esteem and putting a great strain on national health systems.
To unpack and understand the challenges that are presented at country level in our new Index, we have to go deeper and explore how the food system and the associated health and wellbeing implications interact and cannot be separated from wider socioeconomic disparities.
We have known for some years that obesity has become a major problem. In November 2013, a report by Public
Health England found that higher levels of obesity in the UK were found among more deprived groups. In children, the prevalence of obesity in the most deprived 10% of the population is approximately double that of the richest 10%. The study finds that lower income groups are both more likely to eat badly and are less physically active, particularly when excluding exercise related to work. In several public opinion surveys cited in the report, people say that the cost of healthy food is one of the main barriers to maintaining a balanced diet.
The food industry is global, as is the Index. At first glance, it highlights a clear global food distribution failure; too many calories in developed countries, too few in developing countries. But the true story is more complex, with important differences between groups of people within countries. Food poverty is not just a developing world concern, and as a recent ODI report finds, it is not just in richer countries that we need to be concerned with obesity; in fact the majority of people that are overweight now live in developing countries. “Here, the numbers of people affected more than tripled from around 250 million people in 1980 to 904 million in 2008”.. As food crosses borders both literally and through digital markets, it is clear that to address the common and interconnected challenges of the food system a global effort is needed to ensure that precious food resources are getting to the right people at the right price.
In 1798, when there were less than 1 billion people in the world, Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would exceed agricultural production and the world would not be able to feed its people. Defying Malthus’ prediction, the Green Revolution and other agricultural and technological developments have enabled food production to outstrip population growth. However, if we look beyond narrow definitions of supply and demand, the Good Enough to Eat index shows clearly that the global food system today is failing to provide adequate and appropriate nutrition to the 7 billion people that now live on this planet. We must address this broken system with urgency if we are to end hunger and improve the health of people all over the world, whilst of course not forgetting the even bigger question of whether our current levels and methods of food production and resource use more generally are sustainable and equitable for our future.