UK government consultation on regulation of genetic technologies in England presents one-sided case and fails ethics test given its potentially profound consequences for the future of #food and #farming, says Food Ethics Council

I’ve been a member of the Food Ethics Council since 2000 and today our executive director, Dan Crossley, has written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs expressing concerns about the consultation on genetic technologies that closes tomorrow (March 17th). This issue is of global concern so I’m publishing our open letter on my blog to share it more widely. 

“Public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies

The ‘public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies’ has potentially profound consequences for the future of food and farming.

I am writing to do two things. Firstly, to express concerns about the consultation process itself. Secondly, to propose two tests that we would urge Defra to apply before moving forward with any decision about weakening regulations on gene-edited GMOs, as we believe the consultation fails to address some critically important questions. Note – we will publish this as an open letter on our website.

I am Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council, a registered charity whose mission is to accelerate the shift to fair food systems that respect people, animals and the planet. I hope that we share a vision of a world where everyone eats well and global hunger is a distant memory; where farmers and food producers make a decent living, animals are treated humanely, and the biosphere is nurtured in all our actions.

Concerns about the consultation process and framing

While we welcome the principle of open consultation, we are keen the UK government learns lessons from previous consultations on genetically modified organisms. GMOs including gene-edited GMOs, are highly contested areas, with contested science and different, often competing, views. We want meaningful, constructive engagement and a whole food systems approach, from ‘field to fork’.

The consultation is presented in a one-sided way, which is not desirable or appropriate, as it feels to lots of civil society organisations like a fait accompli. This is likely to lead to further polarisation. It also excludes a number of important aspects of the technology, as well as moral perspectives. Much of the consultation document uses technical language that is not appropriate for a non-specialist audience. For these reasons, many will be put off taking part in the consultation. We want to encourage active participation of as many people as possible (in their role as food citizens) in government consultations of this kind, as I’m sure you do.

Defra’s consultation document states that “GE has the potential to make producing abundant, healthy food part of reducing the environmental impact of a growing global population. It could fine tune and speed up the natural breeding process targeted towards environmental gains in England and help us reach climate and biodiversity goals. It could also help us produce pest and disease resistant crops and disease resistant or resilient livestock to help us adapt to the changing climate. And in many cases, the potential to reduce inputs into agricultural production will also indirectly reduce carbon emissions.

This begs questions, both about supporting evidence for the claims of potential benefits and about potential concerns or risks, including concentration of corporate power and ownership over food production, contamination and ‘off-target effects’, which do not appear to have been appropriately considered or presented in the consultation document. The absence of information about existing technologies and processes (e.g. biodiverse agroecology) that already achieve, if not excel in realising, similar outcomes confirms the apparent bias. If the consultation is (as we hope) genuine and Defra is truly undecided about whether to weaken regulations, then surely it should not be presented only with claimed benefits.

Two tests the ‘regulation of genetic technologies’ consultation needs to pass

In our view, there are (at least) two critical tests the consultation will need to pass in order for the exercise to have been meaningful. We do not believe the consultation currently looks set to pass these tests. However, in the spirit of wanting constructive engagement, we set these out below, together with selected key questions that we believe it is important to address. Our two tests are:

  1. WILL THE (POTENTIAL) BENEFITS AND HARMS RELATING TO FOOD AND FARMING AS A WHOLE BE PROPERLY ACCOUNTED FOR?
  2. WILL THE ETHICAL CASE BE CLEAR AND ROBUST?

Related to these, below are a selection of important questions to address:

  • What is the scientific evidence underpinning the consultation? Please can Defra publish supporting evidence so it is available to all interested parties. What evidence is there for claims of benefits made? And what evidence of risks?
  • What science substantiates the highly contestable proposition that gene-edited GMOs possessing genetic changes “could have been introduced by traditional breeding” and that “the safety of an organism is dependent on its characteristics and use rather than on how it was produced”?
  • If approved, what measures are there to ensure the technology is regulated effectively and only used within a specific set of approved uses that deliver public goods?
  • What are ‘other techniques’? The consultation refers to gene editing and ‘other techniques’. Defra must be clear, specific and explicit on which other techniques, as different techniques are likely to have different outcomes, which may or may not be acceptable.
  • How do gene-edited GMOs fit into the broader food system, i.e. given that agriculture does not exist in isolation?
  • If the weakening of regulations is approved, how will this impact the UK’s ability to trade in food (and agricultural products) with others, particularly the EU where much of our current agricultural production is exported to?
  • What is the ethical justification for genome editing in UK agriculture (and food systems more broadly)? The consultation document does not specify the ethical framework within which the final decision will be made. Where is the full ethical appraisal? If that does not yet exist, will that ethical analysis be done before any final decision is made about whether to approve the weakening of regulations?
  • What impacts would the weakening of regulations achieve in the balance of power – including between large corporate agribusinesses, primarily owned by those in the Global North, and smaller farmers, especially (but not only) in the Global South?
  • Who will have the economic and technical means to benefit from these regulatory changes, and crucially who will be disempowered?
  • What estimates have been made about the effect of weakening regulations on the benefits that might accrue to corporations, the academic establishment that owns many of the patents and industrial producers, at the expense of biodiversity-enhancing farmers and other ‘food citizens’?
  • How can we make the regulatory framework more democratic and independent of corporate and research interests?
  • If regulations were weakened, what estimates have been made of the extent to which this would, given the evidence of recent history, further lock the UK into industrial farming models, and thereby risk undermining the claimed environmental wins through these technologies?
  • What are the opportunities foregone by weakening regulations on gene editing processes and gene-edited GMOs and their products?

We are making a short submission to the consultation separately. However, in the absence of answers to the tests and questions above, it is very difficult to make a full and reasoned response.

We believe in bringing ethics to the centre of our food systems. It is imperative that the ethical criteria against which a decision is made are fully articulated, gain consensus support and ultimately are met. Ethical justification must weigh benefits against harm and who (or what) will gain the benefits and who (or what) is excluded and at risk of harm.

Before moving to any decision to weaken the regulations, we would ask you to respond to, and consult further on, the serious questions we raise about the ethics – and the potential effects and impacts – of new genetic technologies.

We would be grateful if you could write back to explain how you intend to meet our tests. We look forward to hearing from you.”

Please do explore the Food Ethics Ccouncil website to see the wide range of issues we cover, from food citizenship to meat, livestock and dairy to food and poverty. The Council works to accelerate the shift towards fair food systems that respect people, animals and the planet.

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Food in a Changing Climate – an Australian perspective from Prof Alana Mann

SN_FoodChangingClimate_CVRAustralian Professor Alana Mann discusses some key themes from her recent book ‘Food in a Changing Climate’ in this wide-ranging conversation. She believes Australia could be seen as a case study in what can go badly wrong if you are naive about climate change and our food systems. She also says drawing on indigenous knowledge of what works in the difficult environment there and elsewhere could also help in facing the challenges to food systems from climate change.

Alana argues for the rejuvenation and strengthening of local and regional food systems that have been steadily eroded in the name of economic ‘efficiency’. She draws on case studies from around the world in her book to illustrate how the commodification of food has made us particularly vulnerable to climate change, extreme weather events, and pandemics such as COVID19. She says these shocks reveal the danger of our reliance on increasingly complex supply chains – dominated by a decreasing number of mega-companies – for our food security.

Here are links to some of the things she mentioned in her interview: Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?; Graham Riches book, Food Bank Nations; website for FoodLab Detroit  and a Ted Talk by Devita Davison of FoodLab Detroit; websites for FoodLab Sydney; the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact; and, Food Sovereignty. Here are links to some media reports on the issues discussed in the book re: almonds and plant-based protein and meat replacements

Alana Mann, Food in a Changing Climate, Emerald Publishing, 2021.

You can hear an interview with Graham Riches entitled ‘First world hunger – surplus food for surplus people?’ here and read a guest blog by him entitled ‘Corporate Charity undermines the human right to adequate food and nutrition’ here.

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Pharma, food and innovation – time for a rethink, says Prof Graham Dutfield

Rules on patents and other forms of intellectual property as well as other legal requirements in licensing agreements increasingly enmesh changes across food, farming, medicines, biodiversity and more. These are changing the meaning of property so that seed you might buy, for example, is not yours to do with as you wish. Here Prof Graham Dutfield reflects on why a broader understanding of innovation, and a rethink of these legal frameworks, is needed if all those who could be able to benefit from innovations will be able to do so.

The focus of his work over several decades has been on the governance of technology, knowledge and property in the context of such major global challenges as public health, food security, biodiversity conservation, ecosystems management, and climate change. He continues to engage in the struggle for the rights of indigenous peoples in relation to their knowledge and genetic resources. What we see as normal today has a history and is the result of the interplay of different interests and forces. His most recent book is ‘That High Design of Purest Gold: A Critical History of the Pharmaceutical Industry, 1880-2020‘, which may also hold lessons for the direction in which food system developments are heading.

That High Design of Purest Gold: A Critical History of the Pharmaceutical Industry, 1880-2020. World Scientific, 2020 – for 30% discount use this code when ordering: WSPHARMIND30 (valid until 30 April 2021) Book launch Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmTrJk-7-Hg

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Creating #foodsecurity post COVID-19 and reaching zero #hunger – in conversation with Jennifer Clapp

HLPERep15-FS&Nut2030-coverFood insecurity has increased greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic and was rising before it (see here). Creating food security for all is a key challenge that the high-level panel of experts (HLPE) of the Committee on Food Security of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has been grappling with. In this conversation, HLPE member, Professor Jennifer Clapp*, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo, discusses the meaning of food security (0-10’25”), the impact of COVID-19 (10’25”-16’10”), issues arising for the Food Systems Summit (16’10”-25’02”) and the challenges to current trade, finance, industry,  and research structures posed by the need to achieve food security for all and reach the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger and achieve sustainable farming systems.

You can download “Food Security and Nutrition – Building a Global Narrative towards 2020” by clicking here. The impact of COVID-19 on food security is summarised in these 3 figures:DynamicsCPVID-19 on FSImpactCOVID_19overtimeHLPE-COVID-19Impact

From: HLPE Issues Paper, ‘Impacts of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition: developing effective policy responses to address the hunger and malnutrition pandemic‘ September 2020 

You might like to read Jennifer Clapp & William G. Moseley (2020) This food crisis is different: COVID-19 and the fragility of the neoliberal food security order, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 47:7, 1393-1417, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2020.1823838

If you want to know more about the Civil Society Mechanism of the Committee on Food Security Prof Clapp mentioned click here. The CSM policy response to COVID-19 is here.

*The third edition of her book Food was published in 2020 by Wiley

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Mobilising cities to tackle the climate crisis through food system change for the Climate Summit – COP26

GlasgowDeclarationGrpahicCities and local governments can play an essential part in enabling the transformation of food systems needed as part of tackling the climate crisis, says Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland. In this interview, he explains how getting cities, local and regional governments to sign up to and act on the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration can influence the outcome of the climate change summit (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021. He also discusses a parallel farm to fork set of dialogues around the world to build an on-going process to underpin this necessary change.

The aim is to build upon much of the work that is already being done and work with the many different networks that exist – Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, c40, rikolto, ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), Under2Coalition, Mayors for Peace, Healthy Cities Network – to encourage their members to sign up to the declaration and act on it. Nourish Scotland is working with many partners on the Declaration and farm to fork dialogues. If you want to get in touch e-mail sofie@nourishscotland.org.uk 

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We need a small farm future argues Chris Smaje

SmallFarmFuture229In this interview, Chris Smaje discusses his book ‘A Small Farm Future: making the case for a society built around local economies self-provisioning agricultural diversity and a shared earth’. He argues that multiple connected crises facing humanity require a rethink of farming models. We discuss the focus on cereals, the role of human labour and livestock, the disparity between urban and rural incomes and access to housing and land as well as the complexities involved in commons

If you want to hear more from Chris then he has a blog. You might also want to check out The Ecological Land Co-op, Flatpack Democracy, and the Land Workers’ Alliance 

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Seed sovereignty under threat – time to reform seed laws, nationally and internationally, says Dr Clare O’Grady Walshe

Dr Clare O’GradSeedSovereigntyy Walshe studies politics and international relations and wanted to understand the power and political dynamics inherent in changing seed laws, policies, and practices inside countries in the face of globalisation. After a careful study of how the laws were changed in Kenya and Ethiopia, her book, Globalisation and Seed Sovereignty in Sub-Saharan Africa, gives a detailed account of these changes and what they say about the nature of globalisation. Today, she is a Research Fellow in the School of Botany at Trinity College Dublin, and directs the new seed sovereignty group. Here she explains more about what she found and the lessons to be drawn.

You can find the article on food and security by Louise Sperling that she refers to here and download the HLPE issues paper on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security and nutrition here and the HLPE report on ‘Food security and nutrition: building a global narrative towards 2030’ here. Click here to download the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report on Agriculture at a Crossroads and here for the report of IAASTD 10 years on: ‘Transformation of our food systems – the making of a paradigm shift’. If you want to know more about Conservation by Use listen to this talk by Dr Melaku Worede

As she notes the international mix of organisations and treaties affecting seeds is increasingly complex and gives rise to a confused policy space with competing regimes. My talk ‘Seeds of contention, control or diversity’ on the Food Systems Academy website explores 5 of these regimes further. She believes this confused space “best serves predatory forces capitalising on such ambiguity and uncertainty with impunity”.

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Real Defence Spending Ensures Good Food for All

Here, I’m reposting a blog I wrote for the Rethinking Security website last week. I argue that there is no security without food security. Meeting the real security needs of humanity necessitates the progressive redistribution of military budgets toward ending hunger and achieving sustainable development.

DSCN4348.JPGAs Covid-19 exacerbates inequalities nationally and globally, more and more people are becoming food insecure in both richer and poorer countries. According to the UN’s 2020 report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019. And the number of hungry people has been rising since 2014, well before the pandemic hit. COVID-19 could push over 130 million more people into chronic hunger, it says. That means one in every nine humans going hungry most of the time.

This matters for both human security and physical security. Last month saw the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”.

The second of the Sustainable Development Goals, a range of objectives adopted by the UN in 2015, is for zero hunger by 2030 and to promote sustainable agriculture. Yet the heads of the five UN agencies behind the report warn that “five years after the world committed to end hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition, we are still off track to achieve this objective by 2030.”

The price of food security

Ceres2030, a research group headed by Cornell University, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), estimate that to reach the zero hunger goal by 2030 some $33bn/year is needed, with $14bn from donors and the rest from affected countries.

Seems a lot? Not really. Especially when the world’s governments spent almost £2 trillion on the military in 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In the UK the departmental budget for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs for 2020 is some £4.3bn, while that for Defence is £39.2bn.

It seems blatantly obvious that defending people’s fundamental needs cannot be achieved through devoting such huge amounts of resources to military spending. It cannot defeat the COVID-19 virus. It cannot deal with the other great long-term, slower-acting threats to human security – climate change, biodiversity loss and growing inequality. It is also clear that arms spending and exports help fuel conflicts that in turn increase food insecurity.

Food security and conflict

SOFI-2017As the UN’s 2017 report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition noted: “Exacerbated by climate-related shocks, conflicts seriously affect food security and are a cause of much of the recent increase in food insecurity. Conflict is a key driver of situations of severe food crisis and recently re-emerged famines, while hunger and undernutrition are significantly worse where conflicts are prolonged and institutional capacities weak.” Violent conflict is also the main driver of population displacement.

The Nobel Peace Prize announcement also noted, “The link between hunger and armed conflict is a vicious circle: war and conflict can cause food insecurity and hunger, just as hunger and food insecurity can cause latent conflicts to flare up and trigger the use of violence. We will never achieve the goal of zero hunger unless we also put an end to war and armed conflict.”

To reach the SDGs, not just in food but across the board, we need new approaches. There are calls for fundamental change to our food systems after we get through the current pandemic – for example, see IPES paper COVID-19 and the Crisis in Food Systems. Now is the time to seize the opportunity to progressively redirect spending from that which cannot defend humanity from these threats, military spending, to that which can.

Cooperation in complex systems

Everyone, everywhere needs food – produced in fair and resilient food systems that respect people, animals and planet, as we say in the Food Ethics Council. And everyone has multiple identities, mother, father, son, daughter, belief system, a community, a nationality, etc. But the core identity that we all need is to see ourselves as Earthlings, spread across different cultures and continents but with common needs, even if expressed differently. These are clearly shown in the various farming systems and cuisines that have developed around the world. We have to get beyond a focus on competition to realise that the mark of any successful social species is the ability to cooperate. Successful social species have to cooperate to survive as they make complex systems.

To do this, we need to put our resources to work in the right direction. This then is the time to seek a worldwide commitment from every country to progressively redirect its military spending away from mechanisms and machines with which to better kill each other into life enhancing and environment sustaining activities. By doing so we will achieve the sustainable development goals, conquer hunger, poverty and make a fairer, healthy and sustainable world for this and future generations.

Food security in the UK

hungryfro-change-pngDefending us Earthlings, in whichever country we live, rich or poor, against the real existential threats to our food security requires unprecedented cooperation between countries and peoples. In the UK, as I write, the issue of avoiding children going hungry in school holidays is hitting the headlines, with a variety of short-term immediate solutions being discussed. But this is symptomatic of a much deeper problem of growing levels of food insecurity and poverty, as were highlighted by the Food Foundation, footballer Marcus Rashford and others and as we found in the independent Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which I chaired.

This challenge, compounded by the need to restructure farming systems and dietary patterns along more ecologically sound, healthy and sustainable lines, is about beginning to understand what true defence spending means for people’s security in the 21st century. For the UK there is an opportunity for government to engage in such a rethink as it embarks on an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. This “will define the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade”. The review provides a real opportunity to lead in redefining what defence and security mean and progressively redirect domestic resources to address the existential threats to people’s well-being, which sadly have been highlighted by the pandemic.

On April 16, 1953, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is Fmade, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.”

It is time to stop that theft. Time to bring together a wide range of constituencies campaigning for this, such as The Global Campaign on Military Spending, Tipping Point North South, Stop Fuelling War, with businesses and NGOs across a wide range of fields to develop positive programmes, such as the Business Plan for Peace, to enable humanity to truly defend itself from hunger and food insecurity, climate change, biodiversity loss and inequality.

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How do you measure the number of hungry people in the world – and why did the numbers drop by some 130 million between 2018-19?

sofi2020Although the number of hungry people in the world has been rising for the past 5 years, reaching 690 million in 2019, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report 2020, that total number shows a significant drop on the previous year’s estimate of 820 million. Why? That’s the first question I put to Carlo Cafiero, Food Security and Nutrition Statistics Team leader Focal point for SDG indicators 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. These concern both the prevalence of undernourishment and also moderate or severe food insecurity in the population.

Carlo is also Project Manager of “Voices of the Hungry” project at FAO. This project developed the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) to provide timely information on the adequacy of people’s access to food by asking them directly about their experiences. The FIES can be used to produce estimates of the prevalence of food insecurity at different levels of severity, key information for implementing policies aiming to realize the human right to food.

Measuring the prevalence of food insecurity in the UK was one of the key recommendations of the independent Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty which reported in 2015 and which I chaired. The Food Foundation (download 4 facts report), EndHungerUK campaign and many others have been working to achieve this since and in 2019 the Department of Work and Pensions announced that food insecurity questions will be added to the Family Resources Survey, which covers all four UK nations and samples 20,000 households (download Food Foundation release).

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The Olympics maybe on hold, but Japan’s food policies are still worth a watch.

a guest blog by Tessa Tricks*

We are amidst a major moment for UK food policy. The pandemic has pushed longstanding issues up the agenda; dietary ill-health has become a medical emergency, school food provision has made the PM’s radar and over five million Britons have become food insecure. Working out how to provide access to healthy and sustainable diets for all is more important than ever. It’s a time for change. A time when many, including the Government are asking about the key ingredients for a more successful food system. What I saw in Japan gives reassurance that policies which affect the dietary health of a nation can be done a radically different way. Here I discuss two health policies, the ‘Metabo’ law which aims to control the waistline of an aging population, and the Shokuiku law which gives each school child a basic food education. Will either win Japan the gold medal for dietary health?

School food matters 

According to UNICEF’s 2019 report, The State of the World’s Children, Japan tops the charts for childhood health indicators and has the lowest incidence of childhood obesity among the 41 developed countries in the OECD and EU.

Kyushoku, Japan’s school lunch programme, and its supporting food education scheme Shokuiku, receive international acclaim for their contribution to such chart-topping child health. Kyushoku began in the 1950s shortly after the introduction of school food standards in the UK. While Thatcher abolished the UK System, the Japanese system remains.

The government-subsidised Kyushoku extends to all government primary schools and many junior high schools. The Basic Law of Shokuiku was introduced in 2005 to make food education a part of school curriculums. Combined, Kyushoku and Shokuiku culminate in across-curricular programme which has the long-term health and wellbeing of children at its core.

Under these programmes each school has a nutritionist who plans the meals using seasonal and fresh food, oversees the preparation, and in many cases supports the procurement of local produce. They also facilitate food learning within lessons and outside of the classroom, through activities such as local farm visits. 

From their first year in school, children turn their classroom into a lunch hall for an hour a day. They take it in turns to serve food to their classmates, introduce the meal, and clear away. The process normalises a sense of shared responsibility and highlights the table manners, gratitude and community dining which are all considered essential parts of ‘teaching food.’

This is supported by a daily broadcast to explain the nutritional elements of the day’s lunch. Regular discussions around lunch and food are also part of the curriculum. 

Japanese friends say pudding was not a part of Kyushoku. “Maybe jelly on special days, but not really.” My memories of UK school lunches revolve around a thick syrupy sponge drowning in custard. No complaints on my part, but it did little on the nutritional front.

On the contrary, each Kyushoku meal has 600-700 calories balanced between carbohydrates, meat or fish and vegetables. A meal might include rice with grilled fish and a spinach and sprout dish, served with miso soup with pork, alongside milk and dried prunes. A splash of custard wouldn’t go amiss but credit is due for the incorporation of at least three portions of fruit and veg into lunch alone.

School lunch example Image source

There are no concessions for those who have special dietary requirements or are vegetarian, let alone vegan. Each child gets the same. This is hard to conceive of in the UK where we have a greater number of ethnicities, pressure for schools to go ‘meat-free’ during certain days of the week, and a crippling fear of allergies.

In Japan, “individual choice” (in an increasingly obesogenic environment) happens outside of the school gates. This one meal a day is seen as an opportunity to level the social determinants of diet-related health which are starker within the UK and sow the seeds of adult diseases in early childhood. School lunch is designed to provide nutrition that tends to be lacking in meals at home. I think it contributes to the nutritional balance necessary for children.”says Education Ministry official Mayumi Ueda.

Although Japan’s childhood obesity rates are low in comparison with the international community, they have risen in recent years due to the increasing infiltration of ‘Western’ high-fat sugar salt (HFSS) foods. Recent data suggests they have begun to stabilise. While it remains to be seen if Shokuiku’s joined up approach to health and food education will help it to buck the global trend long term, these results show promise.

A weighting game

Things are also happening outside the school gates, since Japan’s diet-related adult health has equally come under strain due to a rise in Western-influenced foods. The burden that this places on national healthcare is increased by an ageing population, and a diminishing pool of young taxpayers. In response, the government has made policy moves which shape the nation’s food choices long after they leave school. 

Introduced in 2008, the Metabo aims to prevent obesity in old age by penalising bulging waistlines. It requires men and women between the ages of 40 and 74, (amounting to nearly half of the population) to have their waist circumference measured annually. Men with waistlines larger than 33.5 inches and women with waistlines larger than 35.4 inches are seen as  a cause for concern.

Those spilling over the threshold may be required to go to counselling sessions, converse with a dietician or attend exercise classes. Meanwhile, in the UK, the NHS advises that men with waistlines larger than 37 inches and women with waistlines larger than 31.5 inches should ‘try to lose weight’. 

Japanese citizens aren’t penalised if their weight loss efforts go awry. The companies and local government who have such citizens in their charge are. At the time of Metabo’s introduction, NEC, Japan’s largest maker of PCs, told the New York Times that it could incur as much as $19 million in penalties if it failed to meet its targets.

‘Metabolic syndrome’ is a collection of factors that heighten the risk of developing vascular disease and diabetes, including abdominal obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol. Shortening technical and potentially alienating terminology to the jovial ‘Metabo’, has worked wonders. The term has entered daily conversation as shorthand for both ‘overweight; and ‘body fat’. 

Witty advertising campaigns compliment up-beat ‘Metabo’ music played at specific exercise classed. The lyrics joke about the prospect of buttons flying off trousers and invoke camaraderie as the nation fights the pesky Metabo together.

“Goodbye, Metabo. Let’s get our check-ups together. Go! Go! Go! Goodbye, Metabo. Don’t wait till you get sick. No! No! No!” (When sung to the tune of Amy Winehouse’s Rehab, this really has the potential to stick).

It’s an understatement to say the social disapproval is stronger in Japan than in the UK. The number of Japanese who are afraid to say that they do not want to eat meat for fear of going against the grain serves as one example.

As such, many people felt the approach would have legs. “It’ll have the same effect as non-smoking campaigns where smokers are now looked at disapprovingly,” a company nurse Kimiko Shigeno, told the New York Times.

A decade on Tokyo university worker, Makiko, has mixed feelings about the scheme. “Measuring waistlines isn’t enough to prevent lifestyle related diseases and I’m not sure what impact it’s had. However, Government intervention has made Japanese people more aware of lifestyle diseases. We are all aware of Metabo.”

Official studies on the success of the law have yet to be published. However, Metabo is not just a paternalistic strategy. It highlights an understanding of the role of government in personal health, but also an appreciation of the role of social pressures and norms in shaping dietary behaviour. 

Whether or not you agree with Japan’s strategy for obesity management, their approach to education on the health risks associated with modern food, combined with a healthy food culture from childhood is worth watching. Will it keep them in the running for global health leader? Stay tuned. 

In this guest blog, Tessa Tricks, Creative Partner at Environmental Charity Hubbub, reflects on her recent time in Japan, before it was cut short by Covid-19.


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