The health of humans, animals and ecosystems alike are inextricably connected
Having once seen an alarming infographic stating that a significant proportion of children in the UK believe pasta comes from a cow, I have become convinced that a holistic approach which deals with educating children, parents and wider society alike on how food is grown and produced is critical for the future of the nation's health and wellbeing.
This summer marked the long-awaited publication of the UK government's Childhood Obesity Strategy policy document, which, though hoped to be a game-changer has evoked a plethora of criticism. The delayed-release document entitled 'Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action' outlines various policies to be implemented, monitored and evaluated over the coming years to reduce childhood obesity whilst respecting consumer choice, economic realities and the obvious biological necessity of regular food consumption. Though it is stated that this plan of action, which includes a soft drinks industry levy, signifies the beginning of a conversation and not the final word critics unanimously claim the action plan is weak, watered down and at worst ultimately bowing to the corporate food industry giants at the expense of public health.
Confronting, exposing and limiting the effect of food companies who put profit over people is good; excellent in fact, however in thinking about a comprehensive means of tackling childhood obesity and obesity as a whole it is merely one piece of a giant puzzle. After all, let's imagine for a moment that the food industry was severely prohibited from advertising to children and lowered the amount of sugar in their products - well, the past has shown interesting outcomes. For example, when reducing fat in food products was high on the public health agenda many yogurt companies re-crafted their formulations to low-fat whilst increasing the amounts of sugar and adding obscure thickeners and artificial sweeteners (which some studies have shown may be linked to obesity and metabolic syndrome).
Similarly, several 'light' versions of products were made, sometimes with questionable additives, in order to mimic the original food's consistency. The point being, eventually these odd innovations call for more even policy interventions to deal with the new problems they end up creating. The overall effects of such policy-led industry reforms are limited because, quite simply, they do not dig deep enough into the root of the issue.
An ecological perspective, often left out of the conversation is needed to holistically deal with childhood obesity. By this, I mean the adoption of a 'One Health' approach, which appreciates the fact that the health of humans, animals and ecosystems alike are inextricably connected. This will involve careful consideration of ourselves as modern humans, our plants and animals which we consume and the environments on which we grow and rear them.
A heightened knowledge and appreciation of food and the environment in which it is grown can have radical effects in changing consumer behaviour to support more sustainable food and agricultural systems; when we think more about the environment it changes our purchasing patterns and this in turn transforms our health.
There is a vital need for thorough, unbiased, apolitical and scientifically informed health information to be brought through to the mainstream through the means of education. What does this look like in practice?
Actively engaging children to learn about the differences between organic and conventional agriculture, free-range and caged eggs, wild and farmed salmon, why there is often a price-difference between them and what are the consequences of growing and rearing in such ways that can be both environmentally and socially healthier?
Basic food education is also needed so that children and parents alike understand what happens to their food from farm-to-table. Let's take the example of milk. Most milk in your typical outlet today is pasteurised, homogenised and packed in non-biodegradable plastic containers. The diet of cows has also drastically changed in recent years due to intensive farming and the old-fashioned milkman system of delivery (which often involved reusable glass) is almost totally obsolete.
A careful, more thoughtful consideration of our food and the food systems surrounding it lends weight to a more conscientious way of eating, instead of mindless eating solely influenced by marketing. Learning that there are thousands of varieties of tomatoes and that they grow seasonally and purchasing accordingly promotes the consumption of whole, fresh foods, cooking from scratch and enjoying and being satiated by authentic flavours and with accompanying nutrients. Buying higher quality foods instead of the readily available ultra-processed, sugar-laden junk at supermarkets, corner shops and petrol stations radically transforms health from a bottoms-up approach while lessening the need to overly fixate efforts upon an industry, that it seems if left to themselves will have the whole nation fatter and sicker than ever before the turn of the next decade.
The need for change is urgent with almost a third of children aged two to 15 in the UK now classed as obese. However this problem didn't happen overnight, it came partially through both small- and large-scale changes in farming and industrial processes, in society, consumer behaviour and traditions. Learning what these changes were, why they happened and what disadvantages came alongside their benefits will stand us in good stead in curbing the childhood obesity epidemic and have overarching benefits that extend towards overall human, animal and planetary health.
WITNESS is our new Blog series, which invites new contributors to explore the ecological and social impact of issues currently on their radar
Yvonne Adebola is a recent life sciences graduate and Global Health MSc student at King's College London. She is a freelance writer on health and development issues and also interns as a food anthropology researcher with the NGO 'Slow Food' on their Ark of Taste programme, an EU-funded endeavour seeking to document foods with both geographical significance and cultural heritage that are being lost largely to modern processes of industrialisation. An engaged member of the Royal Society of Biology and Royal Society of Public Health, find her on Instagram @simplenaturalliving where she shares all things sustainable.