Nieuws - 27 maart 2013

Healthy food requires regulations

We go from one food-related scandal to the next. During the dies natalis lecture, internationally renowned agriculture expert Louise Fresco therefore argued for global rules for meat production. She also believes the biggest challenge lies in establishing healthy and sustainable eating habits, rather than in 'more tons per kilo'.
Text: Albert Sikkema & Roelof Kleis

Dies natalis lecture in the Junushof. ‘I propose that from now on the concept of food security should include food safety and healthy eating habits.’
From the speech: 'Each generation learns from previous mistakes. Each era builds upon past errors and new insight. This is true in every field, from medicine to energy to today's theme of food. One could rewrite human history as a continuous correction course.'
The textbooks are continually being revised. What do we need to correct today?
'In general we failed to realize that there were negative consequences of the way we used natural resources. It is profitable to cause pollution because the polluter doesn't pay. That plays a role in all areas, in fact. If you drive a car, you are not personally called to account for your green­house gas emissions. Factories are still allowed to dump all kinds of substances.
The best way of forcing ourselves to close as many cycles as possible is to establish the 'polluter pays' principle. The point is, though, that at the moment we do not really have a system in which the sustainable option consistently comes out as the best one. For example, we don't have a system for VAT differentiation between products that are sustainably produced and products that aren't. There is a lot of scope for the government to do something in that area.'
A second revision concerns the concept of food security. Now that the great majority of the world population has access to sufficient calories, the time has come to address the quality of the entire diet
I would like to propose a new operationalization of food security to incorporate food and nutritional safety into dietary security and safety, into a single index of responsible production and consumption patterns and urge countries to design national dietary security and safety strategies.'
What should that kind of strategy look like?
'Each country will have to develop its own strategy. Take a country like Indonesia with its fast-growing middle class. Those people are all going to start eating a western diet. Lots of sweet bread rolls, croissants and that sort of thing, full of sugar and salt. Accompanied by a lot of fizzy drinks. Then you have the rural labourers in developing countries. They get barely enough calories, may not get sufficient protein and certainly don't get enough vitamins and minerals. So I would start by categorizing the population and then determine what the needs are per group. As an example, you could compensate for vitamin A deficiency with pills or by stimulating people to grow more vegetables.'

What about closer to home?
'What do we want to encourage in young children? In England school meals on the Jamie Oliver model are a big success. Do we want to do the same in the Netherlands? In a lot of Dutch schools there are still all kinds of vending machines with sweets and fizzy drinks. We are concerned about drugs in the vicinity of the school but not about all the stuff that is sold on the school premises. As far as I'm concerned there's nothing wrong with children having a snickers now and then. That's not a problem. It is a problem if they throw out their bread every day to buy a snickers instead.
This year the WHO and the FAO are jointly organizing a conference for the first time in 25 years. This conference can formulate a strategy and develop a format, but how it is implemented comes under the sovereignty of each country. As far as I know, there isn't a country in the world that has even made a start on this. It really does add a new dimension to the concept of food security.'
You emphasize food quality. Isn't the shortage of food a much bigger problem?
'A lot more food needs to be produced, of course. In the future there will be two billion more mouths to feed and of the seven billion people in the world already, roughly two billion don't get enough nutrients. But I don't see that as an insoluble problem. Absolute hunger actually only occurs in emergency situations in countries that are totally dislocated by war or natural disasters. In the rest of the situations in which not enough is consumed, it is largely a matter of purchasing power and not of production. The poor are poor because they are locked out of the economy. You solve that by giving them work, by creating economic growth. After years of emphasizing calories and tons per hectare it is time to shift the emphasis to a balanced diet that is sustainably produced.'
We need to explore where intensification is possible, and where it should be avoided or adapted. Labour will be increasingly scarce, farmers are aging. Hence improving the supply of agricultural products to expanding cities requires smart mechanization, some of it scale-neutral. Productivity can be improved with information technology. This means that the current 500 million small farmers must receive help to become entrepreneurs rather than remain stuck in subsistence or limited surplus production. Small is not always beautiful.'
Away with the small farmer, long live intensification.  
'Of course I am not against small farmers. I know from my own experience how much respect they deserve. That is precisely why they have a right to a good future and to technology and policy that makes it possible for them to be entrepreneurs. And almost all of them want that.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about intensification. I am in favour of intensification where it is feasible, but intensification is not a goal in itself. What I am interested in is always how to make the best possible use of natural resources. Inefficient agriculture on good land is a waste. In our country there is a widespread belief that small-scale agriculture is good for nature and morally better. But there isn't a single farmer who would rather work with his hands in the soil all the time if alternatives are available.'
How do you turn small subsistence farmers into entrepreneurs?
'One big obstacle at the moment is the poorly function­ing markets. In Africa people stand at the side of the road for days with their produce, hoping that a truck will come along and transport it to the city. In this situation the old cooperative model is a big improvement. In that system you all club together to hire a truck and take all your goods to market at one go.
Some of these small farmers won't have anyone to take over the farm from them. That is not a tragedy if you can stimulate the rest to produce optimally. I think it is inhuman to maintain a system in which people are bent double working the land all day. I don't understand how some people can idealize that.'
'But the most pressing issue is the availability of animal proteins. Since 1950 global livestock has grown fivefold and the demand for animal protein may well double in the next few decades. Food safety is an ever growing concern: we are plagued by seemingly continuous food scandals, from melamine in Chinese milk to illegal horse meat, E. coli and Salmonella. Although our food is safer than ever, these incidents point to structural weaknesses in the production chain, often a combination of inadequate regulation, sloppy compliance and even fraud. The only way forward, in my view, is an international treaty on animal production and protein supply that sets the standards for responsible and sustainable production methods.'
What is the problem with the meat market?  
'Production chains are becoming more and more complex. There is an awful lot of competition and the margins are small. The pressure is high and that leads to opportunistic behavior and a kind of anonymity in the chain. That competition for price has two effects: the chances of fraud increase - you get horsemeat instead of beef - and there is no impetus for the suppliers to deliver good quality. It is all about prices and not about loyalty and long-term contracts. That needs to change. The industry will benefit from tackling this. Apart from that, my biggest worry is that double standards will emerge for animal welfare and labour conditions. We don't want megafarms here but we set them up elsewhere. If things there are not properly monitored and regulations kept to, you get double standards. That puts consumers at risk both here and abroad. We must make sure there is a level playing field.'
But wouldn't it be impossible to enforce the same norms for animal welfare all over the world?
'I think that is a fatalistic line of thought. If you had talked about a worldwide climate agreement 20 years ago, no one would have believed you either. There are certain things that should be arranged at the global level. A world that operates at two different speeds, with two norms, leaves the door wide open for black marketeering. We could start with a minimum package, couldn't we? The first step is to agree that there is a problem in the first place.
In Shanghai, for instance, there are enormous chicken farms right next door to residential neighbourhoods, without any physical barriers between the different units. If an infection breaks out there, it will affect hundreds of thousands of chickens straightaway. And that is risky in the case of diseases that can jump from animals to humans. The danger of infection with a zoonosis is something no country can afford, and you can't leave that to the workings of the market.'
How do you get an agreement between all those countries with their different views on welfare?
'You start of course with a treaty or agreement in which principles are established. Sustainable and safe are the two key words there. You have to include sustainability because otherwise you get a situation in which there still isn't a level playing field, and countries remain very slack about their use of water and chemicals and their green­house gas emissions. So first you agree that there is indeed a problem. Then you should establish guidelines and eventually you need to move towards concrete agreements. Countries can agree that they all want to stick to the same norms. And then it is up to the private sector to agree to implement it. You can of course use the law to impose the desired behaviour on the sector.' 
Louise Fresco
(Meppel, 1952)
1986 PhD in Tropical Plant Sciences, Wageningen
1990 Professor of Plant Production Systems at Wageningen
1997 Research director at the FAO, then assistant director-general at the FAO
2006 University professor at the University of Amsterdam
Fresco is a columnist with Dutch daily paper the NRC Handelsblad and has written nine non-scientific books, including 'New Food Laws' and 'Hamburgers in Paradise'. She is a member of the KNAW and the SER, a commissioner at the Rabobank, board member at Unilever and 'honorary professor' at Wageningen.