Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A World of Illusions


The marketing of organic food taps into our innermost drives and ambitions: to be good, to be good to ourselves, to be worth the extra cost. 
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But the only people for whom it definitively seems to be good are managers of multinationals. 
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Ben & Jerry's is now owned by Unilever. 
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Coca-Cola has a majority stake in Innocent smoothies. 
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Back to nature is owned by Kraft. 
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Supermarkets may display their organic food in rustic-looking baskets, and Starbucks may camouflage its corporate brand under local "community personality".
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But farmers in the developing world suffer from diminishing profits, and our soil, sea and atmosphere are ever more degraded.
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The food industry successfully hides its influence behind persuasive talk of the power of the individual. 
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The industry and government alike argue that it is consumer choice and consumer demand that really drive change. 
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Yet a Royal Society report published in 2010 revealed that, although consumers consulted 10 years earlier about whether they wanted GM food had responded with a resounding "no", GM has nevertheless thoroughly penetrated the food supply in the form of soya animal feed and cooking oil. 
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The notion that consumers are in control of the food industry is a myth.

As is the notion that they are at liberty to make well-informed decisions about the food they buy. 
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One of the Cornish pasty company Ginsters' favourite slogans is "Keeping it local". 
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But its pasties are taken on a 250-mile round trip by lorry before being delivered to the Tesco next door to its Cornwall plant because they insist it's more efficient that way. 
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A slice of Cranks seeded farmhouse bread has twice the amount of salt as a packet of Walkers ready-salted crisps. 
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McVitie's light digestive biscuits have less fat than McVitie's original digestives, but more sugar, so the difference between the biscuits is just four calories. 
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But then a 2009 article in the New Scientist pointed out that even calorie labelling is unhelpful, because the body digests different foods at different rates. 
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Consumers aren't stupid is the stock industry response when challenged on their campaigns of misdirection. 
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Yet in her 2010 book Green Gone Wrong, the environmental writer Heather Rogers quotes the director of an organic conglomerate noting that most consumers are simple minds who look at the label and nothing else. 
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But with labels that are this misleading, intelligence is a red herring.
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The industry insists that in selling the sugary, fatty, salty foods that are contributing so much to rates of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, it is simply giving people what they want. 
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In reality, of course, the industry doesn't just respond to desires: it shapes them. 
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Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein talk a lot about food choices in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth And Happiness. 
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Their proposals, which include placing fruit at eye level in school canteens, are an acknowledgment that people aren't very good at choosing healthy food. 
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They're an acknowledgment, in other words, of the fallacy of the much-trumpeted notion of the rational consumer.
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Athough the governments that are in thrall to the politics of nudge seem untroubled by this contradiction. 
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For all their good intentions, Thaler and Sunstein underestimate just how energetically the food industry is working to prevent healthy choices. 
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Often what is needed is some basic information, some rudimentary transparency, rather than a nudge. 
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A traffic light system for labelling healthy and unhealthy food would be a start – research shows it's the most helpful one for consumers – but that would mean giving consumers real power to choose.
One of Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley's first moves in office was to promise that "government and FSA promotion of traffic light labelling will stop" as part of a big shake-up of public health. 
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Out went regulation, legislation and "top-down lectures"; in came voluntary corporate action and individual responsibility. 
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Lansley set up a series of "responsibility deal networks" designed to get public health officials to "work with business". 
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The idea of McDonald's, KFC and Pepsi designing public Health policy outdoes Orwell's Nineteen Eight Four. 
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And one of the networks, in charge of "public health behaviour change", was to work with the government's newly set up "nudge unit". 
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There it is again, the real payoff of nudge policy: to nudge us into buying from big corporations.
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There's a huge denial of inequality here: between consumers and corporations, and also between different kinds of consumers. 
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In reality, there is one group of shoppers that can afford to be ethical and another that can't. 
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The fact is, people on low incomes are more likely to buy food that is bad for them and bad for the environment. 
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But corporations and governments take advantage of the taboos of false consciousness and inequality in order to protest that they are simply letting consumers choose what they want. 
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We are labouring under the delusion not only of freely available, low-cost, great-quality, nutritional food, but also of a level playing field of money, power and information.
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The fact that we tolerate this delusional state of affairs does not speak well of us. 
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It makes us seem passive, blinkered and bovine. 
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The cheapness of food has provided us with a false sense of security, allowing us to believe we're getting the best of both worlds. 
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But food prices are rising. 
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In some ways that will make food choices more conscious, and more consciously political. 
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But there's also a danger that we'll focus more attention on price alone. 
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It's not really our fault. 
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It's hard to make good choices when the marketing of products is so opaque and befuddling. 
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It's hard to detect the silent promotion of inequality by mainstream food culture when the headlines are all about democratisation and demographic change. 
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But we are like orally fixated toddlers, transfixed by Nigella's cupcakey bosom, Starbucks' vanilla frappuccinos and Michelin-starred creamy, frothy sauces. 
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We need to wise up to the rhetoric of food and start tasting reality.
Eliane Glaser,

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