Food, health and our survival — revisited

Everton Pryce

Sunday, February 25, 2018

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Notwithstanding the varied experience of our ancestors during slavery in Jamaica with a daily diet of sugar cane and salt fish — which could explain aspects of the typography of the noncommunicable diseases sweeping the country today — it is high time for us, as a developing post-colonial society, to begin to think very hard and seriously about the origin of our food and what it is doing to our bodies, health and society.

For this reason, I want to revisit the issue of the urgent need for a serious Food Movement in Jamaica — not so much in terms of food price inflation, but more in terms of the politics of mass food industrial production which, in my opinion, deserves to be propelled to the top of the national agenda.

Almost a decade ago, I wrote the following in a column in the Jamaica Observer:

“It is obvious that there exists a disconnection between government action and intentions and the escalation in dietary-related illnesses and fatalities. No doubt, the fiscal crisis of the State coupled with endemic bureaucratic inertia which, for example, is responsible for the lengthy delay in the formulation of the much-touted National Nutrition Policy bears some responsibility for this. But so too is our lack of knowledge about how the food we consume is produced.

“In 2009, the Diabetes Association of Jamaica screened some 10,029 Jamaicans for hypertension; 9,129 for blood sugar; and 6,328 for cholesterol, and the majority were diagnosed with one or the other disease. Cancer, in its various forms as a major health problem in the country, presents us with a similar rising trend. Additionally, between January to June 2009, 30.6 per cent of all new diabetes cases, and 35.9 per cent of new hypertension cases among senior citizens were seen at the island's public health centres alone. This mournful occurrence is happening despite Government's stated commitment to national health education and public awareness programmes designed to engender wellness and a healthy and productive population”. ( 'Food, health and our survival', Jamaica Observer, Saturday, February 12, 2011)

Sadly, hardly anything has changed in this landscape since then. For, while globally some 300 million people are today living with diabetes of one kind or the other, and research suggests that going forward there will be an estimated 67 per cent increase in the incidence of the disease in one generation alone — even as some types of diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases now account for over 56 per cent of deaths — Jamaican women, aged 15-74 are carrying the greater burden of diabetes vis--vis our men.

Added to this is the alarming evidence that over 12,000 of our children currently are saddled with chronic diabetes, while an equally distressing 25 per cent of the adult population is walking around the streets of Jamaica blissfully unaware of their diabetic condition. They, and others with knowledge of their condition, furthermore, must wake up each day to face the reality that there are currently about 400 to 600 or more new cases per/one million of the population of chronic renal failure identified in Jamaica each year as a result of the incidents of diabetes among the general population.

And if you are not already convinced that we are standing on the precipice of a major public health crisis in this stressful society linked to food, then consider that all this is happening in an environment where there are approximately only 50 dialysis machines in Jamaica treating some 250 patients at any one time. Literally hundreds of Jamaicans, in other words, are watching their lives fade away because of the shortage of dialysis machines to give them a fighting chance at life.

Taken together, these are frightening numbers in a society with a population of some 2.7 million souls. Yet, various governments habitually shirk their responsibility for the cost of treating expensive and largely preventable problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes, while finding the resources to expend to optimise their chances at political longevity.

Since 2011, the most noticeable Government response to the consequences of our “food problem” has focused almost exclusively on treating with the back-end of the symptoms of our dietary-related illnesses and fatalities, rather than their causes. For example, its current national health education and public awareness initiatives in face of the health consequences of industrial food production in Jamaica (childhood/adult obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease, etc) centres primarily around the 'Jamaica Moves' exercise campaign spearheaded by the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders, and the heightened lobby exercised against the sale and distribution of sweetened and sugary beverages in our schools.

But even as the Government and its stakeholders seek to frame the conversation about diet on the preferred ground of “personal responsibility” and exercise, one can almost be forgiven for thinking that the movers behind the Jamaica Moves marketing and public relations campaign are trapped in a contradictory belief system. They clearly think that it is possible to continue consuming cheap mass-produced and highly processed food laced with added fats and sugars that is responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases that threaten to bankrupt the health care system, while at the same time exercise one's body to rich health and wellness.

The cold fact is that Jamaica is still behind the proverbial 'eight ball' in confronting head-on the need for a serious Food Movement in tackling the deepening crisis of dietary-related diseases.

Supermarkets all across Jamaica brim with produce summoned from every conceivable corner of the globe, and a steady stream of novel food products, matched only by our ignorance of their production, crowd the middle aisles; and in the freezer cases you can find “home meal replacements” from across the globe, demanding nothing more of the eater than opening the package and waiting for the microwave to chirp.

To be sure, eating healthy in Jamaica is both a challenge and a necessity. But the average Jamaican woman, man and child is far removed from being able to influence by themselves the policies of big corporations on the one side, and Government on the other, and this leaves them at the mercy of a Jamaican diet responsible, in the main, for the epidemic of chronic diseases that threatens to bankrupt the health care system.

Many companies in Jamaica, especially in the manufacturing sector, pay their workers so poorly that they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food on offer, creating a kind of non-virtuous circle driving down both wages and the quality of food. And besides drawing women into the workforce, globalisation, predatory employers, weakening of the trade union movement, and government cuts for the undermining of public services have made fast food both cheap to produce, and a welcome, if not indispensable option for extremely pinched and harried working class families.

As I pointed out in my column referenced above: “It makes no sense (in these circumstances)…petitioning the Government to take action against the large corporations behind the industrial fast-food industry in the hope of forcing change in their production methods. These corporations…are primarily concerned with issues of price, self-interest, the homogenisation of taste and experience and supporting the mainstream consumer economy. What we need, instead, is a Food Movement that would not only enlarge considerably the country's understanding of all these issues, but would also focus on the ethical and political values informing our buying decisions.”

Some critics of the Food Movement idea may choose to focus on the big tent nature of the proposal with the potential for factions representing divergent concerns and tactics thus rendering it splintered from the beginning. But the potential benefits of the movement far outweigh any suspected disadvantages, because the issues subsumed underneath it supersede any divergent concerns and tactics.

“There is room (in the Food Movement) for advocacy with matters like school lunch reform, the rise of organic food, greater efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes, food safety regulations, policies to make fresh local foods more accessible to the poor, greater efforts to regulate food ingredients and marketing, especially to children and calorie labelling on fast-food menus.” (op cit)

And just in case the sceptics are prone to view the proposal for a Food Movement in Jamaica as “left-wing fantasy” it bears noting that the movement has impacted some 132 countries globally in the last decade with thousands of libertarian conservatives lending their active support to it.

This is primarily because the global Food Movement is not designed to be a counter-weight to an overbearing State, but is rather against the dominance of corporations in the food industry. As the renowned American novelist, environmental activist and farmer, Wendell Erdman Berry once wrote, the corporations “will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to inert it, pre-chewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so”.

In the final analysis, in thinking about our future, it is worthwhile reflecting that, despite the declared gains in the economy touted by the Government, and the 'licky-licky' self-indulgence at high spending and wanton consumerism by a certain section of the population as if heralding the triumph of prosperity over the sacrifice of austerity, something remains not quite right to many in the society at large. I suspect this has to do with that loss of any sense of community.

The problem with “industrial food”, then, is that “with the rise of fast food and the collapse of old-time everyday cooking…it has damaged considerably family life and community, while eroding the civility on which our political culture once depended” (ibid).

There is no future for Jamaica's food system and economy as it currently stands, especially given the imperatives and inevitability of climate change. In light of this, isn't it time we try something new as a society to restore civility and family values to our creaking democracy?

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