Policies that affect food patterns

by Morton Sosland
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Morton Sosland
Changes in eating that directly impact industries like grain-based foods have gained strength in recent years to the point that many national industries are looking for ways to affect food preferences. Hardly anything spurs attention to this possibility more than the movements in national consumption patterns hinting of a less than positive trend in demand for flour-based consumer products. The approaches used or being considered cover such a wide range that it may be concluded that no single way has been identified for best increasing demand for grain-based foods. It is that lack of a common approach to expanding demand that prompts particular attention to what may be an international effort to reduce consumption of a particular food, or just the reverse of what grain-based foods is seeking.

Important in even looking at steps proposed to cut back intake of specific foods is to declare that the opposite approach is not necessarily a good way to improve use. The food situation is unlike many efforts to improve living standards, where negatives such as tearing down cheap living in slums and cutting back on immigration may be viewed as helpful, and doing the opposite such as building cheap housing and expanding immigration may be considered detrimental. In the case of foods, a great deal of effort has been focused on relations between food prices and income levels and consumption rates.

The problem for food is that changes in income levels and in prices have so many variable impacts that relying on these is nearly useless. First, price and income levels mainly affect only what people living on low incomes eat. A recent study by the Economic Research Service shows that income and prices influence eating patterns across gender, age, regions, countries and react differently on each of the major food categories, including grain-based foods. Unstated in this important finding is how time differences are also important.

In accepting these implications, the World Health Organization, a United Nations entity, has proposed a Global Action Plan aimed at improving diets, not just by encouraging people to eat more of foods considered healthy, but by cutting back availability of saturated fatty acids, high sodium prepared and processed foods and added sugars in food and nonalcoholic beverages. Without specifics, the W.H.O. says attention must be given to increasing availability of “fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods,” with the likelihood that whole grains alone would fit into this pattern.

This effort reflects a conclusion that recent changes in global eating patterns have resulted in a worrying rise in global obesity and related chronic diseases in both developed and developing countries. With this problem seen as one shared by many nations, the W.H.O. has taken on the task of spurring changes in eating patterns that particularly focus on cutting back obesity levels throughout the world. While no specific steps are proposed on a country-by-country basis to improve eating patterns, the possible role of prices as both a positive and negative incentive has been extensively studied.

Taxes applied to undesirable products, which have been tried and are yet unproven in several American cities, have many negatives that make the W.H.O. cautious, if not skeptical, about their effect. Particularly problematic are the ability of many developing nations to adopt a tax policy on consumer prices that would be transparent as well as equitable. The certainty of industry opposition to such a taxing policy aimed directly at reducing consumption is beyond the ability of many nations to counter. On the other hand, increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables by actions that would allow price reductions is seen as working only in low income nations. It is also these nations that voice concerns about how many of these policies would affect food-insecure populations.

One finding is evident from all of these continuing deliberations, and that is that affecting food consumption levels beyond the food marketplace itself is not only difficult, but may be nearly impossible.
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