Part 7: Nutrient-dense foods

In the 21st century, we’re experiencing a nutrient famine, with many in the UK already suffering.

Nutrient-dense foods are more expensive than ’empty’ calories to produce, store and distribute to populations.

If people don’t have enough money to buy sufficient nutrient-dense foods, they will be malnourished, with all the knock-on effects that has on individuals, and on society.

Widespread calorie famine with many thousands of deaths of people within a short time period is now, thankfully, rare. (1)

A nutrient famine is less dramatic in effect. Its effects are over a longer time frame, often pernicious. But we’re already seeing evidence of their effects in, for example, obesity rates and diet-related cancers.

Obesity is evidence of malnutrition. What levels of obesity or diet-related cancers does the UK need to have before we consider it a crisis? 
Do we measure the numbers of people? The numbers of children? The knock-on costs to medical and healthy services? Mortality stats? Infant mortality stats? Warning signals in the data? (2) (3)

Is it 10%, 20%, x % of the UK population who can’t afford a healthy diet when we consider the UK is in crisis?  What % of children? At what rate of change in the stats should we act?

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“Calorie counting doesn’t add up”
This is heading of Chapter 3 in Tim Spector’s book Spoon-Fed: Why almost everything we’ve been told about food is wrong.

The subtitle of the chapter is Myth: Calories accurately measure how fattening food is.

In essence, the way kcal are measured in any food stuff is, well, dodgy. Moreover, the physiological process uses different amounts of energy — pouring sugar into your system is far more easily converted into energy than, say, lentils or a steak. Add in, too, that each of us processes food differently . . . Yes, I strongly recommend you read at least this chapter of his book!

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note: When people think of famine, often as not the images that spring to mind are skeletal figures, or pot-bellied infants with flies crawling across their eyes. Such images are of people who are not only nutrient-deficient, but calorie-deficient.

There’s no question that every living critter needs enough food to generate the energy for all organs to function, and to be able to move around. Eat nowt, and you feel fatigued within a day or two. Within three or four days, you won’t have the energy to move much — hence the adage that ‘we’re nine meals from anarchy’ (4)

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(1) Famines: Our World in Data (data up to 2016).

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KK in the Q&A: put forward the argument that the UK isn’t in crisis, compared to the terrible scenes from Afghanistan that we’re witnessing on our screens.

Response:
True. Two points:

  • There are many causes of famine; see this section from the Our World in Data section on famines: https:// .org/famines#why-do-famines-happen. As with the last famine on (then-)British soil was in the 1840s in Ireland and, too, Scotland. It began with a potato harvest failure (a crop pathogen, an oomycyte, colloquially known as potato ‘blight’. The British Government’s refusal to act resulted in the huge death toll (more than a million people) and the forced emigration of many more — including, of course, Joe Biden and John F Kennedy’s forebears.
  • The appalling situation in Afghanistan — and in other places in the world, are not reasons for us luckier folk in the UK to do nothing about the situation in which we find ourselves in this country now.

(2) Re garnering evidence of malnutrition & its effects: A surprising new role for local government by Benjamin P Taylor and myself, Municipal Journal, 13th December 2021.

(3) Also: Shining a light on the UK food supply system: The role of local government and public health. June 2021.

(4) For where this adage is from and what it’s based on, scroll down to the added note at the bottom of this page about the scenarios tool we developed, simply called The Game.

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ST comment: 
There are some very good UK food producers, but all subject to pressure from the supermarket retail chain pressure.

Response: Not so. For starters, roughly half our food supplies go through hospitality/catering services supply chains, plus more from the smaller retailers. (see the function map posts, starting with this one: What huge numbers of organisations do.)

/cont ST
Supermarkets are only beholden to shareholder value pressure, not the health of people.

Response: The food supply system is a commercial one. Therefore the organisations and people involved respond to commercial pressures, even those like Waitrose (who don’t have shareholders) or the likes of FareShare in the third sector.

That’s not to say the Government doesn’t have a role in their operations. It does, either through doing nothing (winner takes all) or something — again, look at the function map. Regulatory bodies, regulation and its enforcement, fiscal policies and trade agreements set the parameters of engagement between the players.

The advantage of a commercial system is that the players can turn on a dime. Witness how rapidly the supply system reconfigured itself in the few weeks after the first lockdown, as outlined in this Covid-19 Commentary post, The food supply system into the second month of lockdown, and others in that series.

Note, too, that the participants in our recent scenarios exercise about buffer stocks were professionals within the sector, one one of whom a senior Big 8 supermarket exec; i.e. they were all commercially highly astute and experienced. And look at what they came up with!

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This is the seventh blogpost in the Lunar Society series, others all listed in this link: Food security: Is the UK already in crisis?

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