Five levers on our food system

Birmingham spends some £3.4bn every year on food and drink, yet the cost of obesity to the city has been estimated to be £2.6bn, with a further £448M being spent here on dealing with alcohol related harm.

There’s evidently something seriously awry with the economics of our food and drink system.

So what should we do about it?

Complexity science offers us a radically different way of looking at our food system — see this earlier blogpost about thinking of it as a ‘complex system’.

If we think of our food system as a ‘black box’, which we can affect through tweaking ‘levers’ on the outside, then we have a means of changing the system and its outputs. (see this blogpost where I introduce this idea.)

So what are the levers that either have, are or could be used on the system to change our dietary health? The diagram below shows five of them:

  1. By far the most influential is advertising. (See Statista figures giving $bns for US in 2015 below; I couldn’t find stats for the UK — do point me in their direction if you know where to find ’em!)
  2. Public Health England have various campaigns including exhortations for us to eat 5 portions of fruit and veg everyday, and the Change4Life programme.
  3. There used to be school classes in Home Economics, Domestic Science, Cookery. They were usually for girls, and only for some of them.
  4. Food products have to display nutritional values. Often difficult to understand, a ‘traffic lights’ system was introduced in 2013 — with red indicating unhealthy food stuffs, amber being neutral and green meaning the healthy option. The story is that a major chain introduced this system which led to a significant drop in sales of red-labelled products — and as these food products with low or zero nutritional value have high profit margins, the retailer abandoned the project,advising the Government that we should have a ‘voluntary’ system.
  5. Another possible lever on the system is to use the VAT system to provide a helpful metric.

We think informing people overtly about the VAT on food products, this fifth item, will have a big impact, just as the ‘traffic lights’ system did. And paying and accounting for VAT at the point of sale is not a voluntary option, it’s demanded by HMRC.

* * *

Statista figures for advertising spend on food and drink in the US in 2015:












Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *