Why Food Wars Should Not be the New ‘Normal’

In this exclusive blog post, Tim Lang and Michael Heasman, authors of Food Wars: The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets, 2nd Edition discuss our food system and how their forthcoming textbook addresses the dire need for transformation.

Food WarsIn any other area of human activity a crisis of the scale and severity facing our food supply would warrant a global emergency. Instead the on-going human and environmental health disasters resulting from the producing and consuming of food have become so commonplace and widespread as to be characterised by some as a new ‘normal’.

This new ‘normal’ means hundreds of millions of people suffering hunger, ill-health, disease and even death as a result of a hugely unequal and dysfunctional food system, particularly with its over-reliance on the marketing and selling of ‘junk’ food diets. Industrial methods of agricultural and food production are fundamentally undermining the resources and environments needed to sustain the means to produce food. Many solutions to these human and environmental catastrophes appear as little more than a technical tinkering of this failing food system.

Unsurprisingly there is almost universal agreement that our current food system is unsustainable for the future and that fundamental change is needed. But while it can be agreed transformation of the food system is needed, the ways and means to do this are mired in controversy and conflict.

In the fully re-written second edition of Food Wars we try to make sense of these perspectives by updating our original analytical framework of competing paradigms or world views shaping the direction and decision-making within food politics and policy. Our big theory continues to centre on this clash of these policy paradigms. From this our core theme emerges: how can human and environmental health be aligned with both social justice, public policy, and a successful food economy. This challenge is even more pressing today than when we wrote the first edition of Food Wars in the early 2000s.

The facts and examples underpinning the Food Wars story are stark. A couple of specific examples can illustrate this. In the area of nutrition, for example, recent figures from the World Obesity Federation estimate that 2.7 billion adults worldwide will be overweight or obese by 2025 based on current trends. This is an increase from 2.0 billion in 2014. Of these 177 million adults will be so severely obese they will need medical treatment. Related to the increase in overweight and obesity is the unprecedented rise in diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) across the globe, such as heart disease and diabetes. Today diet-related NCDs are some of the world’s leading causes of death. The financial costs of such diet-related ill-health are creating new burdens on health care services – especially in countries with poor health infrastructures.

The environmental pressures on food systems are serious and many. These include biodiversity loss, the growing impact from climate change, pollution (such as run-offs from the use of agri-chemicals), soil loss, energy and oil use, waste, and water stresses. To give a specific example, global ocean fisheries are in an unsustainable ‘nosedive’ according to the WWF. While scientific debates rage over the interpretation of data, WWF state, through overfishing and habitat loss, 29% of ocean fish stocks are ‘over exploited’ and a further 61% ‘fully exploited’. Yet three billion people rely on fish as a major source of protein and millions of small-scale fishers as well as a multi-billion dollar global food industry are all at risk.

Despite the urgency of the human and environmental food challenges there is often a mix of policy drift and denial. Food policy strategies are often ineffective - but we argue this should be an incentive to clarify arguments and help spread public understanding of the need for change. The public – consumers, workers, scientists, the media – in fact all of us, are crucial in mapping change. The public need to pressurise and give politicians the legitimacy needed to facilitate food system transformation.

There are also positive sides to what can often be a bleak food picture such as initiatives from a vibrant civil society engaging with food issues, or innovative food businesses developing and implementing far-reaching sustainability strategies. While food poverty and inequalities remain a major challenge for the global community, recent decades has also seen considerable progress in fighting global hunger and extreme poverty. Connections between health, environment and an unequal world and poverty are nowadays legitimate areas for high level policy debates.

Through fully revising and re-writing this new edition of Food Wars we continue in our conviction, and that of many academics and analysts, that the future of food remains one of the biggest issues for humanity and for policy makers to sort out. The current prognosis is far from ‘normal’. We hope this new edition of Food Wars can make a small contribution to this urgent task. 

  • Food Wars

    The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets, 2nd Edition

    By Tim Lang, Michael Heasman

    In the years since publication of the first edition of Food Wars much has happened in the world of food policy. This new edition brings these developments fully up to date within the original analytical framework of competing paradigms or worldviews shaping the direction and decision-making within…

    Paperback – 2015-10-22