Don't count on industry goodwill: Tax for healthy, sustainable food

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

 Systemic changes to the political economy of food provisioning and supply are needed to keep health and environmental damage in check, write the authors.
Systemic changes to the political economy of food provisioning and supply are needed to keep health and environmental damage in check, write the authors.

Related tags: Sustainability, Nutrition, Health

Don’t count on industry goodwill or informed consumers for a healthier, sustainable food system – it's time to try food taxes, says one report.

As Western societies face a ticking health and environment bomb due to over-consumption of unhealthy foods made by an unsustainable food system, a shift towards more healthy and sustainable eating patterns is urgently needed, say the authors of a Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) report.

And with the nutrition transition meaning emerging countries could soon face the same problems, this shift must be global in scale, write the authors.

The report analyses a variety of strategies to simultaneously improve public health and protect the environment, including more government regulation and taxes and less reliance on nudge tactics.

‘Governments must govern – and tax’

While fiscal measures are not the be-all and end-all solution, the fear of unintended effects should not be used as an excuse for inaction, write the authors, pointing to an overreliance on theoretical models to assess their efficacy.

Instead look at the 10% Mexican soda tax, which appears to be successful with sales of sweetened beverages down by 10% and sales of 100% fruit juices and milk up by 7%. Similarly, a French tax of 7 cents on all drinks with added sugar or artificial sweeteners led to a  3.3% fall in supermarket sales. 

But the authors warned that governments must anticipate potential overlaps between health and environmental goals in a bid to minimise trade-offs within the supply chain.

For instance, interventions geared at changing consumption may positively affect health but damage the environment if production methods remain unchanged.  Another possibility is that products, too expensive for the domestic market, are simply exported – meaning the health risks are also exported abroad.

Equally, manufacturing-side penalties designed to reduce the environmental impact may simply reduce domestic production and increase imports, transferring the environmental impact abroad.

Fiscal interventions should therefore be designed with these multiple factors in mind and, importantly, put in practice because theoretical models are of limited scope and use.

“Lack of evidence is not an excuse for inaction: action engenders evidence. Indeed policy inaction leads to a paucity of empirical evidence. Trials and experimentation particularly based on the some of the more politically challenging fiscal and regulatory approaches are essential,” ​the authors write.

“In this way the evidence base is built and policies progressively refined and improved.”

Better labelling: empowering consumers or allowing industry to take a backseat?

The authors slam nudge tactics to alter behaviour – such as labelling and public awareness campaign – as limited. These have formed the backbone of public health policies in recent years because they are a politically safe option.

For too long the focus of interventions around health, and now sustainability, has been on the individual. This needs to change; approaches aimed at getting individuals to change voluntarily have limited impacts.

“[There is] an almost inverse correlation between policy enthusiasm for such approaches and their effectiveness.”

However, Garnett et al. do acknowledge several positive spin-offs. Better awareness of healthy eating and environmental campaigns may ‘soften up’ the public, making people more receptive to, and accepting of, tougher more direct strategies such as regulation.

They may also drive a ‘race to the top’ among manufacturers who do not wish their products to be seen as nutritionally unhealthy or unsustainable, such as Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brands’ campaign.

A mix of measures is needed

Ultimately, the authors conclude that, given the scale and urgency of food sustainability problem, no one approach will achieve the changes needed in the time available. “A mix of approaches – regulatory, fiscal, voluntary, and contextual and information oriented – is required.”

Source: Food Climate Research Network
Published online 2015, available here
“Policies and actions to shift eating patterns: What works?  A review of the evidence of the effectiveness of interventions aimed at shifting diets in more sustainable and healthy directions.”
Authors: Garnett T, Mathewson S, Angelides P and Borthwick F

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