Columns

Food, health and our survival

EVERTON PRYCE

Saturday, February 12, 2011    

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THERE'S urgent need for a food movement in Jamaica. Notwithstanding any existing laws, policies and regulations, it seems that this is a sensible, practical and effective method to push back against a dietary-cum-lifestyle-related health problem besetting the country, arising out of government inertia, sheer ignorance and a minimal sense of personal responsibility in relation to the food we consume.

It is obvious that there exists a disconnection between government action and intentions and the escalation in dietary-related illnesses and fatalities. No doubt, the fiscal crisis of the state coupled with endemic bureaucratic inertia which, for example, is responsible for the lengthy delay in the formulation of the much-touted "National Nutrition Policy", bears some responsibility for this. But, so too is our lack of knowledge about how the food we consume is produced.

In 2009, the Diabetes Association of Jamaica screened some 10,029 Jamaicans for hypertension, 9,129 for blood sugar and 6,328 for cholesterol, and the majority were diagnosed with one or the other disease. Cancer, in its various forms as a major health problem in the country, presents us with a similar rising trend. Additionally, between January to June, 2009, 30.6 per cent of all new diabetes cases and 35.9 per cent of new hypertension cases among senior citizens were seen at the island's public health centres alone. This mournful occurrence is happening despite governments' stated commitment to national health education and public awareness programmes designed to engender wellness and a healthy and productive population.

Given this scenario, a local food movement can have great impact and benefit us tremendously as a country in the grip of a potential food-related health crisis. First, such a movement would serve to shift the conversation about our food industry away from simply our diet and consumption of sugary, fatty and salty foods to a serious discussion of the way food is produced and marketed in this country. It would also force serious analysis, as a means of effecting political action for change, of the correlation between the poor wages paid to far too many of our workers and their ability to afford only the cheap, low-quality food sold by fast-food outlets. For continued indulgence of the Jamaican diet of highly processed food, laced with added fats and sugars, will not only lead to an epidemic of chronic diseases, but will ultimately bankrupt our health care system.

The threat of such an eventuality ought to be sufficient motivation for the formation of a local food movement, which, once established, would quickly recognise that not only has our food system changed beyond recognition in the last 50 years, but that the food we eat can no longer be treated as a silent issue.

Industrial food production in Jamaica needs urgent reform because its social, environmental, public health, animal welfare and gastronomic costs can prove much too high over time. We know this to be true, thanks to a series of food safety scandals in the late 1980s like the BSE or mad cow disease and the E.coli 0157HH7 intestinal bacteria outbreak identified in feedlot cattle. In any event, as our local insurance industry and the government assume greater responsibility for the cost of treating preventable and expensive lifestyle-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes and obesity, pressure for reform of our food system, and the average Jamaican diet, is bound to increase.

It makes no sense, therefore, simply petitioning the government to take action against the large corporations behind the industrial fast-food industry in the hope of forcing change in their production methods. These corporations, after all, are primarily concerned with issues of price, self-interest, the homogenisation of taste and experience and supporting the mainstream consumer economy. What we need instead is a Food Movement that would not only enlarge considerably the country's understanding of all these issues, but would also focus on the ethical and political values informing our buying decisions.

The problem with industrial food is that, with the rise of fast food and the collapse of old-time everyday cooking - spurred on by feminists who urged women to get out of the kitchen - it has damaged considerably family life and community, while eroding the civility on which our political culture once depended. "Civility is not needed when one is by oneself,", writes American political scientist, Janet Flammang, sometime ago. The scene all across Jamaica inside and outside the major commercial fast-food outlets, especially on a Friday evening, suggests that fast food has become antithetical to family values.

Admittedly, the idea of establishing a Food Movement in Jamaica can be characterised as a big tent. But the issues subsumed underneath it will make an equally big claim on public attention and need not lead to divergent concerns and tactics. There is room for advocacy with matters like school lunch reform, the rise of organic food, greater efforts to combat obesity and Type-2 diabetes, food safety regulations, policies to make fresh local foods more accessible to the poor, greater efforts to regulate food ingredients and marketing, especially to children, and calorie labelling on fast-food menus.

Clearly, today's food system and economy in Jamaica is unsustainable. It cannot go on in its current form much longer without courting a breakdown of some kind, whether environmental, economic, or both. And it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to address the issue of climate change, as Prime Minister Bruce Golding proposes to do, without reforming our food system.

Everton Pryce is a social policy analyst.

epryce9@gmail.com

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