In this issue we continue our ‘I get around’ series, where Association members tell stories of where they are, what they are doing, who they have met, and why they believe or hope they are doing valuable work. This month we have Siri Solberg, who recently finished her MSc in Public Health Nutrition at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, and who presented her research at our Oxford Conference in September 2014. She tells us about her experience in combining nutrition and economics.
Last September, I attended the conference Building healthy global food systems: A new imperative for public health nutrition, organized by the Association in Oxford, UK. The conference addressed important issues such as the health related outcomes of global food systems, the major global drivers of the food system, and how policies can be used to support and promote global food systems that are environmentally, culturally and socially sustainable.
The conference gathered a range of leading researchers in the public health nutrition and food policy areas, and during the conference I heard several great and inspiring lectures on the topic. One of the best speakers in my opinion was Corinna Hawkes, talking about how to define and build a healthy global food system. She had a simple and clear message through ten main points, summarized here based on my own notes:
- Food systems are incredibly complex. Innumerable actors, institutions and factors are tied together in food systems.
- Food systems are very tangible. Food systems are a part of everyone’s’ everyday life.
- Food systems underpin our nutrition and health (and that of the natural environment).
- A healthy food system is defined as a system supporting optimal nutrition and health.
- Still, there are competing views on what is a healthy food system. In many cases, these competing views comes down to the discussion between those who think a healthy food system is efficient, industrial, industrialized large-scale food production of monocultures and those proposing a healthy food system is based on indigenous food systems, diversity, organic production and free-range, grazing animals, and local markets.
- The “thingification” of a single food system is a distraction from the solution. Reliance on any single food system leads to overdependence and reduced resilience. In today’s modern and global food system, farmers are too dependent upon specialized production; consumers are over dependent upon the market, as they are without land and skills to grow and even prepare food; the food industry is over dependent upon exploited labor and on overconsumption. But we will also be vulnerable if we are over dependent upon local, organic food systems. We need both. We cannot depend on one single model.
- Diversity leads to resilience.
- Food systems solutions are diverse.
- Who will govern this diversity of solutions? We need a global architecture, which is fit for purpose, and above all, we need leadership.
- We are all actors in the food system, both through our daily meals and through our professional efforts as public health nutritionists. We are all a part of the solution.
The conference hit right on my main interest in food policies and global food systems, being a recent master’s graduate in public health nutrition with a background from economics. After finishing my bachelor’s degree in economics, I left my initial plan to do my masters in economics. Although I found economics interesting and important, I did not identify with the general mindset. During my three years of bachelor studies, there was very little emphasis on critical thinking; few questioned the economic models, few questioned if increasing trade is always a positive thing, or if economic growth is the best (if not the one and only) indicator of development. We made model predictions, and little emphasis was given to actual situations and observed outcomes. As a young student, and this being my first meeting with science, I believed that economics meant thinking like that. Instead of looking for other points of view (which I did not know existed), I gave up economics and moved on to nutrition. It was only when I started my MSc in Public Health Nutrition at the Oslo and Akershus University College, in Norway, that I understood how food is closely connected to economics and politics, and that it is possible to apply economics when working with the food system. I realized there are scientists who challenge the predominant economic paradigms and models, or the outcomes of a too narrow focus on economic parameters.
My interest for the food system and the link between economics, politics and food led me to writing my master’s thesis on ultra-processed foods and the new classification of foods based on degree and purpose of processing, developed by the University of Sao Paulo and published in the Association’s journal World Nutrition. The new classification of food has been developed based on a hypothesis that traditional diets being replaced by industrially processed products is the main dietary driver of the obesity epidemic, as predicted by the nutrition transition theory. The dominance of processed products in diets is seen in the context of the food system, in which the actors with most power stand to gain from increasing food processing, and where prevailing economic and political paradigms to a large extent favors letting the market decide the outcome.
In the study, I analyzed food sales in Norway in light of the new classification. Using scanner data from the food retail sector, results showed that 70 % of items purchases were processed or ultra-processed, and that 60 % of food expenditure was dedicated to these foods in 2013. Sweet ultra-processed products alone accounted for every third item purchased. In comparison, only one in ten items purchased were a minimally processed food, meaning that Norwegians purchased three sweet ultra-processed products for each minimally processed food item. On a brighter note, I also found a positive change between 2005 and 2013, towards a less processed purchasing pattern in the capital city, which could be an indication of a health trend and increasing awareness in the population.
The study was accepted for a poster presentation at the Oxford conference, and the abstract is available here. The poster sessions included a two-minute presentation to a committee and a group of listeners, as well as the poster being available at the poster area throughout the duration of the conference along with about 90 other posters. Although they were a small part of the conference, for me as a recent graduate, being able to participate and show my work to other researchers was a very valuable experience. After the presentation, several people approached me for questions and to discuss related research they were conducting, and I was able to make contacts for future possible collaborations.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and should not be taken to be those of the Association.
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