The Chef in the Kitchen: Western food systems behind the global health crisis
Siobhan Bahl discusses the complexities behind the global food crisis and the very real and present power of Western food systems
Obesity, a pandemic all within itself, has often been framed as a shaming sickness, a predicament of poverty, and a disease. In a world pressurised by social platforms and fitness fads, what we eat and how we eat is seen as a choice. We can choose to nourish our bodies properly, because to eat clean and healthy is a choice, a choice anyone can make, right?
However, in viewing obesity as purely the consequence of a lack of will power to eat healthily is to ignore the structural violence and racial injustice enforced by a food economy dominated by Western societies. According to the World Health Organisation, at least 50 per cent of the Pacific Island Population is overweight with Caribbean nations such as Jamaica sitting at 63 per cent for women and 47 per cent for men. As the BBC reported in 2019, a third of the poorest countries in the world are dealing with high levels of obesity. Yet, when we think about the images we associate with the food crisis in the world’s poorest countries, pictures of starving, malnourished children and families come to mind. Yet in these countries, particularly recently independent one, there is a crisis unfolding known as the ‘double burden of malnutrition’. The double burden is a battle happening on two fronts; in many developing countries there is as great a problem with obesity as there is with starvation. The presence of skeletal and overweight bodies shining a glaring light on the lack of adequate access to proper nutrition. Failing food systems are drastically altering the way people eat and drink, and this change can and should be read as an act of racial injustice.
However, in viewing obesity as purely the consequence of a lack of will power to eat healthily is to ignore the structural violence and racial injustice enforced by a food economy dominated by Western societies.Siobhan Bahl
To show this, Stephanie Black in 2001 released a documentary called ‘Life and Debt’ examining the economic and social situation of Jamaica. It was in this film that Black outlined the ways in which neo-liberal food markets were decimating the Jamaican food industry. In a globalised world, newly decolonised nations are encouraged to enter the world trade market. Yet for countries like Jamaica, competing against established wealthy nations such as the United States lead to the destruction of their local industry, such as their dairy and potato industry. In one scene Black shows milk pouring out of tankards, gushing out and being dumped due to an inability to sell the produce. This issue still stands today. In order for Jamaica to get access to a loan to fund structural development in 1992 the World Bank required Jamaica to lift tariffs on imported food goods. Nearly 29 years later, Jamaica is still flooded with imported heavily subsidised powdered milk from the US and the EU. The consequences: a devastated local food economy, less jobs, greater levels of poverty, yet an abundance of heavily processed imported produce. This has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as the UN World Food Programme detailed, in April 2020 53% of households were buying cheaper, more processed food.
More often than not this cheaper food comes in the form of heavily refined, processed meals. In Jamaica a McDonalds combo meal comes in at around J$835, which equates to roughly £4. A single head of broccoli costs on average around £3, which is J$600. For a family tight on money, with mouths to feed, what seems the more viable option? The fast food industry are titans in the world food economy, and their establishment in poorer countries, already battling with the depletion of affordable whole foods, must be questioned. There is a responsibility of the fast food industry, nominally Western corporations, to consider the effects of their extractavist capitalist expansion into foreign countries.
A burger or carton of chips, packaged in neat boxes and bags and passed through car windows at our drive-throughs, are lethal weapons. These weapons just like the gun, violently damage the human body. Though this damage is accompanied by a much different array of health risks. Can we really apply the rhetoric that fast food consumption is purely a choice in this setting? It is further vital to consider what fast food companies represent. American food, fast food, junk food, sugary treats are often marketed and packaged to depict American society, the American Dream, and modernity. A society of choice, luxury, and cosmopolitan development. A McDonald’s ad released in 2020 screams “big.beefy.bliss”. Who wouldn’t want to buy into such beefy luxury? Especially if that lifestyle of excessive bliss and manifest destiny remains heavily advertised in a crippled economy.
A burger or carton of chips, packaged in neat boxes and bags and passed through car windows at our drive-throughs, are lethal weapons.Siobhan Bahl and Rupali Naik
If I were to ask you which nation had the highest rates of obesity, I can confidently guess that one of your answers would be America. But I’m sure that none of you would say Nauru, the tiny Pacific Ocean country with a population of around 12,000 people. As the Borgen Project states, the Pacific Islands are vulnerable nations that subject to frequent extreme weather and, due to their geographical isolation as islands, are targets for more than just hurricanes. The lack of fertile agriculture in the region has made them sitting ducks for the locked and loaded gun of American imports. Moreover, the islands are often treated like a food waste dumping site. After WWII America sold most of their unwanted cuts of meat, such as turkey tail meat, to the islands. Sold to nations, particularly Samoa, this rapid importation of highly subsidised fatty meat led to rocketing rates of obesity. Although many islands tried to ban the meat, in order to be apart World Trade Organisation the bans had to be lifted. So, to out bluntly, does a national government choose to facilitate the rise of obesity by accepting unhealthy imports? Or, do you cut yourself off from the wealth of the World economy? It is a double-edged sword with both sides as sharp as each other.
The lack of fertile agriculture in the region has made them sitting ducks for the locked and loaded gun of American imports.Siobhan Bahl
Increasing taxes on unhealthy foods and potential obesity education programmes can aid the obesity crises happening across developing countries. And this is being done. But the onus should not fully rest on the shoulders of these nations alone as, after all, these realities are not entirely their doing. In recognising the modern food chain and the powerful elite who sit at the top, assessing what is available and to whom, and who supplies what and to where, we can begin to address systems of food violence placed by Western powers. Such practises of food violence not only exist in developing countries, but in our own too, exampled by UNICEF’s intervention in December 2020, which is a dichotomy the West likes to disregard to continue it’s modern and well-developed persona.
It is highly important to recognise that health exists as a privilege. The healthy body in many ways acts as a physical marker of which bodies are protected, idealised, and glorified within the Western capitalist world food system. Instead of slipping into a rhetoric of blame where we condemn those who have ‘chosen’ to consume unhealthy food, we should question why. Yes, obesity and malnourishment are a epidemic, but it is not a sickness of the individual or the developing country; the infection lies in the heart of the food industry.
Yes, obesity and malnourishment are an global crisis, but it is not a sickness of the individual or the developing country; the infection lies in the heart of the food industry.Siobhan Bahl
Instead of focusing wholly on removing these systems in developing countries alone (and perhaps replicating colonial saviour complexes), it is perhaps worth recognising and destabilising these systems in our own corner of the world.Rupali Naik
Instead of focusing wholly on removing these systems in developing countries alone (and perhaps replicating colonial saviour complexes), it is perhaps worth recognising and destabilising these systems in our own corner of the world. By highlighting these issues, we can begin to dismantle how food is used as a weapon to categorise bodies and peoples. We all have a part to play in recognising and choosing foods that support local businesses and remove the power of the Western capitalist hydra.