Feeding the World (Or Overstuffing it?)
May-June 2004
In 2005, obesity will take over tobacco as the main cause of death in the United States. It’s become a heavy (!) burden. More than half of all Americans are overweight and almost one quarter are just plain obese, and morbidly so. In Canada, 43% of the population is overweight and 13% is obese. In fact, this problem affects more and more children. This bodes well for their future… “It’s a time bomb, believes Sir John Krebs, President of the British Food Safety Society, quoted reporter Jean-Claude Leclerc. If nothing is done to stop this trend, our life expectancy could be reduced for the first time in 100 years”. And the finger pointing begins with a sedentary lifestyle, genetics, and especially, a calorie-laden diet rich in fat.

Welcome to the world of overconsumption. Proof positive that the incredible efficiency of the American food industry will undoubtedly rear its ugly head. It’s pure cause and effect, we overproduce, prices plunge, and the marketing machine gears up to stimulate consumption.… and the consumer, who wants to take advantage of a good deal, eats it up (literally) and gains so much weight as to make him sick. Mass production leads to mass obesity. What can we do? Who can we blame? The consumer, the government, the industry?

Let’s agree that in a country of abundance, any relatively intelligent adult should be able to assume his or her own diet choices. No one is forced to eat fast food, nor are they forced to feed it to their kids. This is the consumer’s responsibility – as well as the parent’s – which, in fact, makes us a free society. Should the government get involved? It should insist on supporting research and educational campaigns, and require that manufacturers produce unambiguous labels. That way the consumer can make his own knowledgeable choices. And what about the industry? Doesn’t it also have a tendency to pass the buck onto consumers by saying that “this is what they want and that’s what they’ll get”? The customer is always right, but beware: the customer can change his mind. In the United State, the food industry is increasingly considered as risky by credit rating agencies because of possible lawsuits. It’s not pure coincidence that Kraft recently announced that it would review its individual portion size and improve the nutritional quality of its products. Nor is it coincidence that McDonald’s has agreed to remove, by the end of this year, its super size portions from some of its restaurants.

Perhaps times have changed; times when a soulless industry can serve its market with impunity, operating simply on demand, are gone. In the past ten years we’ve entered a new era where companies must remain accountable to the society in which they operate. The time has come for companies to be responsible, a fortiori if that company is a cooperative. For the basic foundations of cooperative philosophy are values of transparency, honesty and education. By definition, a cooperative must contribute to the well being of the collective to which it belongs. Therefore, in principle, the cooperative enterprise should help the consumer make better choices. And if this is true, then the agricultural cooperative movement as a whole should heed the call through its activities throughout the food industry. Bottom line is that the fight against obesity is a battle we should all be fighting.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Organization for food and agriculture revealed that one child under 10 dies from starvation every seven seconds. And that current world production would adequately feed 12 billion people when in fact there are only a little more than 6 billion of us on this earth. Isn’t it critical to re-establish a balance for the good of us all? In this, supposedly, civilized society, what exactly are we doing to transform the extraordinary efficiency of our modern production means into an international development issue, into a means of accessing a saner, freer, and more enlightened world? Too ambitious a project? Please! In this day and age as we prospect Mars, could we really qualify as idealistic the dream to seek a quality of life for us all, on our own planet?

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Email: colette.lebel@lacoop.coop
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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