At first glance, the relationship between what we eat and our health seems so blindingly obvious as to barely merit any special mention at all. We are what we eat, aren’t we?
That’s as maybe but nonetheless there appears to be a fundamental problem in our approach to food and the extent to which we are becoming increasingly passive around its impact on our health - too many of us are regularly eating too much and all too often we are eating too much of the wrong foods. It goes without saying that if we don’t eat we die, but for many of us the relationship we have with food appears to have deteriorated to the point that so long as we are not hungry, we give little consideration as to the precise nature of what we are eating or indeed the quantities we consume.
And yet as Maggie Gill informed us in her presentation, there are numerous reasons why we should completely rethink our attitudes to the food we eat. This reassessment needs to include how much we are prepared to pay for food, what processes we consider to be acceptable in its preparation, the impact of the world’s food systems on the wider environment and the long term viability of these systems when set against the projected patterns of population growth across the world.
Without much closer attention to the many factors that directly impact on our food systems, such as the use/overuse of antibiotics in the food chain, it seems we could be sleep walking into a public health catastrophe. And that public health catastrophe is coming at us from many directions. The antibiotics issue is just one aspect of this. As a result of the quantity and quality of what we eat in the developed world, levels of obesity have reached the point where it has become effectively normalised. With 30% of the population clinically obese and a further 30% overweight, the costs to society are becoming unsustainable. More costly than the impact of smoking, it is estimated that 10% of all days lost from work are as a result of obesity with an annual cost to the health service of £64bn.
But our relationship to food doesn’t need to be so problematic to the health of the nation. As Judy Wilkinson of the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society pointed out, if we shortened the supply chain by actually growing more of the food we eat, we could begin to enjoy multiple health benefits that might also begin to address many of the global concerns raised by Maggie. Judy argued for a massive expansion across the country of land given over to the creation of new allotments where people could begin to reconnect with the soil and its productivity. She highlighted in particular the benefits of gardening and the value that both the solitude of the activity and the companionship of working on an allotment site can bring to the emotional and spiritual well-being of an individual.
It seems that the forces of globalisation, when applied to the food industry, generate few obvious health benefits principally because of our demand that food be cheap and plentiful. As a result we in the west are unlikely to starve but there will be long term and serious consequences for our health. Meanwhile of course, huge swathes of the developing world continue to starve. Suffice to say, the relationship between food and our health is at the very least, problematic and one which has a long way to go before being resolved.