Advocating for Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems in Australia – taking a holistic approach

Assorted vegetable on table

Kate Sievert, Cherie Russell, and Sarah Dickie – Healthy Food Systems Australia

 

Australia’s dominant food system provides access to a wide range of safe foods in a relatively secure manner. However, it is also a major contributor to chronic disease risk and environmental degradation. Our food supply encourages the consumption of ‘unhealthy’ foods, which are heavily marketed and often more affordable and available than healthier alternatives. Overconsumption of these foods can lead to diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, and some cancers. Additionally, producing these foods in high volumes relies on ‘industrial’ methods and techniques, with long supply chains, resulting in large amounts of ‘ultra-processed’ and animal-source outputs.

With Australia’s food system contributing 15.2% of all national greenhouse gas emissions, and responsible for 59% of all water consumption, it is profoundly negatively affecting the environment.

 

Importance of advocacy through a ‘systems lens’

Given how complex and ingrained these problems are in Australia’s food system operations,  policy interventions to improve human and planetary health need to be comprehensive, multi-sectoral and imbedded in all polices (often described as a ‘health in all policies’ approach). This is no small task and requires taking a ‘systems lens’ in our advocacy efforts. Often, given the multiple actors, drivers, and dynamics that inform policy, this challenge seems idealistic. Advocacy in Australia for both human and environmental outcomes can be powerful, though these inter-related issues are not always integrated in advocacy efforts.

However, if we do not challenge the current status quo, we risk reinforcing a system that cannot, in its current form, protect human and planetary health in the long term.

 

Healthy Food Systems Australia (HFSA)

This issue is at the core of Healthy Food Systems Australia’s founding principles. We are a small advocacy group, initiated in October 2020, and comprised of members who envision a food system that prioritises public and planetary health. That is, a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system for everyone in Australia. We believe that this can only be achieved with a coordinated shift at all levels of the supply chain and food environment, encompassing the broader, interconnected elements of the food system. We formed this group to apply our research to real-world political solutions, engage with the wealth of advocacy experience in Australia, and advocate for pragmatic policies that lead to systems level changes. We have learnt from experienced and established public health advocacy groups and advocates in Australia, who have been generous in sharing their strategies and working collaboratively with HFSA in our infancy to ensure we are all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’.

Since 2020, we have made multiple policy submissions in response to government and international consultations, launched organisational policy positions, conducted advocacy-related research, and explored creative ways to communicate and advocate for systems thinking in food policy.

 

Ultra-processed foods

One focus area for HFSA is ultra-processed foods. Evidence is rapidly mounting regarding the health and environmental issues associated with ultra-processed foods, beyond their high salt, fat, and sugar nutrient content. Ultra-processed foods represent a symbolic (and literal) vector for many ills of the food system:

  • They are unhealthy – encouraging us to overeat, and replacing whole, minimally-processed foods in our diets.
  • They are environmentally harmful – using significant environmental resources such as energy, water, packaging materials and plastic waste.
  • They are inequitable – food deserts in low-income communities comprise a significant proportion of these cheap and addictive ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat foods that further increase the income inequality gap.

The expansion of ultra-processed foods in our food supply has been enabled by the immense power of the food industry, particularly that of large-scale food processing corporations. To mass-produce ultra-processed foods, this industry relies on favourable conditions such as subsidised cheap ingredients, free trade and minimal regulation, and close proximity to the political processes involved with policymaking. For example, the food industry regularly advocates for self-regulation instead of government regulation. In Australia, this has resulted in initiatives such as industry self-monitoring standards and advertising codes, which have shown minimal changes.

 

Policy-making and influence from industry

The few government-led policies that are implemented and supported by industry are limited in scope, rely on population behaviour change instead of broad structural change, and are focused entirely on human health, rather than incorporating sustainability. The involvement of the food industry in policymaking undermines public trust, resulting in food policy that is not fit for purpose and maintains “business-as-usual” practices. HFSA takes a strong stance on the involvement of the food industry in policymaking, given that there is a clear conflict of interest between their private interests (market dominance and sales growth) and public interests (human and environmental wellbeing). We advocate for:

  • Transparent policymaking processes,
  • Prohibition of lobbying and political donations to government, and
  • Prohibition of industry funding or sponsoring of food policy committees or groups.

 

Encouraging signs from recent Australian Dietary Guidelines review

We were pleased to see that the recent Australian Dietary Guidelines development review by the National Health and Medical Research Council has taken a bold position on transparency and conflicts of interest in their review process. All experts on the committee were required to declare their interests, which were assessed by a separate governance committee. They have also published any meetings or correspondence from external stakeholders, including the food industry.

This progressive step forward has been largely enabled by the tireless work of many public health advocacy groups fighting for public interests in Australia. HFSA aims to continue contributing to this space, working synergistically on common areas of interest, and advocating for comprehensive public health action that prioritises the rights of both people and the planet. Advocacy is an important tool for concerned citizens to have their voices heard in the political and electoral process. Contacting your local member, raising awareness in your community, and making a statement at the voting box are all meaningful ways to effect change. If you share these concerns and would like to get involved in advocacy, contact us here.


Kate Sievert, Cherie Russell, and Sarah Dickie are co-founders of Healthy Food Systems Australia, and are members of PHAA.

Follow HFSA on Twitter.

Image: Megan Thomas/Unsplash

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