Thursday, January 08, 2009

Put supermarkets’ bloated profits on a diet

The government’s New Year campaign against obesity and for healthier living is a shameful piece of hypocrisy because it ignores the real causes of the health crisis. 

In the so-called Change4Life campaign launched with expensive advertising, the website explains that “it can be hard these days to live a happy, healthy life ... The way we live in modern society means a lot of us, especially our kids, have fallen into unhealthy habits”. 

But presenting the fact that “if we carry on as we are 90% of today’s children could be overweight or obese by 2050”, as if it is some naturally occurring social phenomenon, is a total fraud. This health crisis is a direct result of a distorted society where generating profit is the sole criteria of everything, and governments collude in conditioning us to accept that. 

The system is dependent on people consuming, and over-consuming – and that applies as much to food as to other commodities. Through advertising, sponsorships of popular culture, and of course the whole structure of food distribution through the global giant supermarkets, these profits are sustained. 

Over the last 30 years of globalisation and the industrialisation of food, agri-business and food supply and retail giants have been allowed to carry out uncontrolled experiments. People eat what are in effect poisonous substances because the governments they elect to safeguard their health, allow them to be freely sold and promoted. 

An example of this is the development of so-called trans-fats, used because they are cheaper than natural oils and fats. Trans-fats increase unhealthy cholesterol and are implicated in cancer; they are in your food now. And it’s also a fact that poorer people who can’t afford to eat well often end up buying cheaper junk food, which encourages obesity. 

Nobody asked us if we wanted this to happen – we have no control over the content of our food. And New Labour cannot even enforce an agreed system of food labelling so that people can try to make rational decisions when they are shopping – it remains a voluntary code. The levels of fat, sugar and salt in products are still hard to fathom – it is a case of “buyer beware, because the state won’t help you”. 

As to urging young people to do more exercise, we should note that more than four out of 10 school and community playing fields in England have been lost since 1992. There used to be 78,000 pitches on 26,000 sites; now there are 44,000 pitches on 21,000 sites. Hundreds of swimming pools have been closed down while fitness centres are too expensive for many to afford. Tens of millions of pounds have been removed from funding grassroots sport to pay for the 2012 corporate Olympics. Government funding for “elite sportsmen and women” has increased by 230% since 2000. In the same period, funding for the bodies that pay for community sport went up by just 7%. 

The government has created a national curriculum where schools struggle to provide even two hours a week of healthy exercise or sport for children. Children who should be out playing, running and enjoying themselves instead have their noses to the grindstone, being prepared for the world of work (or unemployment). British schools are like fast food outlets – corporately-produced ingredients, put together by underpaid overworked staff to make unsatisfying and unhealthy products, which children are then forced to consume. 

As for adults, leaving the car and using public transport would help most people get fitter. But since public transport is so poor and underfunded, people are forced to stick to the car to get to work on time. 

The best way to take control of your life, and your family’s health, is to join with millions of others in a struggle to end the bloated profits of the supermarkets and agri-corporations and bring the production and distribution of food under social control. Now that’s a real incentive to live longer, lose weight and get fit – good luck with the diet! 

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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