The Australian Food and Grocery Council, the lobby group for the big end of food town, has persuaded the Coalition’s negotiations on an Emissions Trading Scheme to exempt agriculture and food processing — forever.

If that sounds like something you’d expect from the minerals industry, it’s worth noting that Mitch Hooke, from the Minerals Council, spent seven years as chief executive of the AFGC, and then swapped roles with Dick Wells. Kate Carnell then replaced Wells.

If the negotiations between the government and opposition give in to the demands of the AFGC, we will miss a great opportunity to reform the food industry and the health of Australians.

Our food supply is abundant, but 30,000 food items in the average supermarket don’t come cheaply in the energy stakes. Our highly processed food supply with its sugars, fats, refined starches, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colours, flavours and other additives — all packaged, transported and stored for out-of-season eating —  creates vast quantities of greenhouse gases. Added to that, we have emissions from intensive animal rearing, methane burps from ruminant animals and the greenhouse gases (including more methane) produced from food wastes dumped as landfill and discarded packaging. Omitting food from the ETS is absurd.

The vast array of foods ensures we over-eat. The average supermarket now stocks 1800 different snack food lines, more than  150 breakfast cereals (some more accurately described as confectionery), and an absurd choice of junk in aisles stocked with packet soups, sauces, biscuits and sugary drinks. Does it really make us happier or healthier to have 45 varieties of milk or hundreds of choices of yoghurt?

There’s no mystery as to why the majority of Australian adults are overweight or obese and about a quarter of our children carry too much body fat.

Sure we’re inactive. Passive entertainment, changes in the type of work we do (or don’t do), the widening distances between home, work, schools and shops and the car culture have a lot to answer for. So has the fear that has driven people (especially children) inside to avoid perceived dangers from people and outdoor play equipment —  including trees!

Our kids have swapped the occasional broken arm for obesity-related problems including sleep apnoea, type 2 diabetes a higher incidence of asthma and problems with their knees, back and feet. Among adults, type 2 diabetes has tripled over the past 20 years and excess body fat increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, cancer, osteoarthritis, asthma and Alzheimer’s disease.

Over-consumption is expensive. In 2008, costs to the Australian society and government were estimated at $58.2 billion.

There is an urgent need to reduce the national girth. The most popular call is for more physical activity. No one would argue with that. But we also need to find a way to encourage people to eat less.

The usual cry of “they should be educated” doesn’t work in the face of so much abundance and strong marketing campaigns to get us to eat more. Food industry profits depend on us eating more.

The food industry’s solution of more choice increases profits, but does nothing for obesity. When lab rats are offered a “cafeteria diet”, they eat more. So do we. The more on offer, the more we buy, the more we waist and the more we waste.

Better labelling with red dots on foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt could help warn people off buying these items too often. Protecting kids from junk foods ads on television and highly sophisticated marketing on internet games would reduce the pester power that leads parents to happy meals and supermarket trolleys full of junk foods and drinks. We need these protections — and more.

Taxes work for alcohol and cigarettes. When an extra tax was applied to full strength beer in the Northern Territory some years ago, sales fell. So did domestic violence, accidents and various alcohol related health problems. When industry pressures caused the government of the day to withdraw the tax, beer sales increased, along with the associated problems.

Every tax increase on cigarettes results in more people quitting. Yes, it hurts the poor more, but the poorer people in our society also have the worst health and stand to benefit most from financial incentives to select healthier foods.

As I see it, there are two ways we could tax foods. I’ve long proposed adding extra taxes to foods high in sugar, saturated and trans fats and salt. We already have a GST on junk foods, and while there are a few anomalies that need to be ironed out, this could be a good basis for adding a junk food tax. However, it misses foods such as artificially sweetened soft drinks that contribute nothing of any value and create huge environmental costs.

A more effective and useful tax would be based on a food’s carbon footprint. The Netherlands and Sweden have calculated the carbon dioxide emission equivalents of foods. Garnaut quoted the Dutch example in his major report. Swedish food labels already list the greenhouse gases embedded in the product and the government has accompanied this with an educational campaign to help people make more environmentally sound choices. Professor David Pimmental, from Cornell University, has calculated and published data on the use of energy resources in food production, including processed foods. In Australia, Planet Ark is working on carbon footprint labels.

Using carbon footprint data shows that packaged junk, foods stored and sold out of season, fake fats and artificial sugars, and highly preserved, coloured and artificially flavoured items hit the highs for greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news is that those producing food could develop responsible products with a low carbon footprint.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes score well, especially if produced without high levels of fertilisers and pesticides derived from petro-chemical products.  Sustainable fishing and production of meat from smaller animals get a boost while meat from intensively reared, grain-fed animals and dairy products produced where the rainfall doesn’t allow adequate green grass would all rise in price. Packaging and storage facilities could be minimised.

The food industry wants an exemption from the ETS for food because their junk foods and drinks are profitable — especially when their full impact is ignored. But they can’t argue against a carbon footprint tax on the grounds that it would benefit their overseas competitors since imported foods would be subject to an even greater carbon footprint tax due to transportation.

A tax based on carbon footprint has obvious benefits for the planet. It could also benefit health — without nutritionists having to bang on about the evils of sugar or certain fats. It could cut consumption of junk foods and drinks — exactly what we need. The prize would be better health and a dent in the annual $58.2 billion bill for obesity.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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