Do European agricultural policies encourage the adoption of unhealthy diets?

Politics and economics are getting in the way of better food. The Global Food Security programme’s Sarah Nicholson reports.

Sarah Nicholson

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the number one cause of death globally and are predicted to increase by 15% between 2010 and 2020 (PDF), and the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as CVDs and diabetes are to a large extent determined by dietary factors. In Europe, our diets have changed to include higher levels of saturated fats, sugars and salt and lower levels of dietary fibres, fruits and vegetables.

So why are our diets changing? One hypothesis is that agricultural policies influence food availability and consumption.

In 1962 the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was established with the aim to increase food production in Europe following the serious food shortages caused by the Second World War. Today, the CAP still aims to eliminate over-production and reduce costs, however many of the policies can directly or indirectly alter the price, availability and nutritional value of foods which in turn alters consumer choices and diets.

Modern agriculture doesn’t always make us healthy.

Don’t milk it

Currently, there are tight EU regulations on  dairy produce such as milk and butter in order to maintain EU target prices above the world market. However, this has resulted in a large surplus, such that production exceeds demand by 9%. Policies have been put in place to shift the surplus; yet these policies also generate a potential threat to health.

For example, the intervention butter scheme enables farmers to sell to the food industry for a reduced price. Yet this can have adverse effects on health through encouraging the production of cheaper high-fat foods such as ice cream, pastries and biscuits.

Too much milk? An industrial cow milking machine at Fair Oaks Farms.

As well as increasing the availability of certain food sources, European policies can also alter food prices.

Fruit and vegetable consumption in European countries is significantly less than the WHO’s recommended daily amount of 400g. This may be at least partly caused by the premium on fruit and vegetables brought about by agricultural policies.

The market withdrawal and non-harvesting schemes encourage farmers to dispose of fruit and vegetables in order to keep the prices above the world market. In 2001, one million tonnes of fruit and vegetables were withdrawn and 80% of these destroyed (PDF) in order to keep the prices up.

This method of maintaining artificially high prices of fruit and vegetables is obviously not in the interest of public health, with the greatest impact on low income households.

Too much of a bad thing

In addition to altering food availability and price, agricultural policies also influence the nutritional value of food. For example, the EU intervention scheme for cereals allows farmers to sell excess yield to the highest bidder. Therefore, farmers have an incentive to increase wheat yields not only for profit, but also for subsidies.

Cereal foods have come to predominate many eating habits.

However, there is some evidence that the production systems farmers use to increase wheat yields can indirectly have adverse effects on health. Decades of repeatedly breeding wheat to increase yields may have altered the starch properties of wheat, such that starch is broken down more readily into glucose and causes glycaemic spikes.

As a consequence of this, research shows that refined carbohydrates can increase the risk of CVD and diabetes.

Solving the problem

It is clear that agricultural policies affect our diet, however to what extent is debatable. If Europe is going to tackle the obesity epidemic there needs to be increased collaboration and communication between agricultural policy makers and health policy makers.

For instance, if there were increased funding in this area, focusing on the link between policy and health, this would enable health policy makers to present substantial evidence to agricultural policy makers which would in turn positively influence existing and new policies.

More powerful scientific evidence might encourage policy makers to subsidise low fat dairy products instead of having a flat-rate, implement subsidies to encourage the production of fruit and vegetables and restrict the amount of wheat breeding for healthier diets.

Achieving this will help produce a healthy and sustainable food supply for society.

Add your comment.

About Sarah Nicholson

Sarah Nicholson is an Assistant Peer Review Officer at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Prior to this she completed an MSc in Biomedical and Molecular Sciences Research at King’s College London and a BSc in Biology at the University of Southampton.

4 thoughts on “Do European agricultural policies encourage the adoption of unhealthy diets?

  1. Excellent article. The connection between agriculture and nutrition is an important part of the debate and is an integral part of changing our food system for the better. The two have traditionally been thought of as separate parts of the food supply chain, and more research and policy needs to focus on bridging this gap.

  2. Thank you Alex for your comments.

    I agree it is a really important area that needs to be addressed. I believe that increasing research in this area could really help reduce the gap between agriculture and policy and provide a more integrated approach to food production and supply, that takes into account human health as well as the current economy.

  3. Interesting. But have you got a few more solution suggestions Sarah? May would argue there’s quite a lot of research already out there. What other options do we have to change agricultural policies? Policies that seem very much entrenched in European politics.

  4. Thanks Tom.

    There are certainly other ways in which society could influence current agricultural policies to improve food diversity and food nutrition. For example, I think increasing food nutrition education and engagement in schools would encourage individuals from a young age to push the political agenda to focus on health and balanced diets. Additionally, I think there needs to be a greater representation from members of the health industry in agricultural policy decisions. This improved inter-sectoral approach would help ensure health is a primary focus in agricultural policy.

Leave a Reply

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

Sign up to our Newsletter