Resetting the table to halt expanding waistlines

13 August 2015

Can farmers, producers and regulators work together at all points of the food supply chain to help curb Australia’s growing obesity problem?


That’s the challenge up for discussion at a University of Sydney symposium next week, which will bring together representatives from industry, government and academia to seek new solutions to issues of under- and over-nutrition.

As governments worldwide grapple with unsustainable health costs, and with agricultural budgets falling dramatically, the symposium will push for better farming and manufacturing practices, bolstered by more effective policy frameworks, to help stop obesity at its food source. 

Our current food systems are not providing us with readily accessible healthy and nutritious diets
Associate Professor Robyn Alders

“We can’t keep ‘throwing good money after bad’," said symposium convener Associate Professor Robyn Alders AO, from the Faculty of Veterinary Science.

"We need to look at how we can facilitate a value chain to ensure that nutrition becomes central: so it’s not just about marketing a commodity, but it’s about marketing a commodity that is proven to be good for our health.”

Weak policies lead to poor health

The ‘Resetting the Australian table: adding value and adding health’ symposium will propose a holistic approach to health, with food production and distribution at its crux.

The symposium will consider overlooked factors such as the soil quality in which food is grown and the effects of ‘shelf life’ on purchasing behaviour, with consumers forced to pay more for fresh food due to high wastage costs.

Associate Professor Alders pointed to so-called ‘food deserts’ – impoverished geographic areas without ready access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables and only serviced by fast convenience foods – as one example of the health implications resulting from weak regulation of food production and distribution.

These have been exacerbated by the supermarket pricing wars, which have not only caused insufficient rewards for farmers, but have also led to a trade-off between nutrient content and costs for consumers.

Fresh versus cheap food

“Currently, the most profitable food substances tend to be those that can be produced and then sit on a shelf for two years and still be able to be sold at their full price – you don’t lose in terms of whoever has manufactured them,” Associate Professor Alders said.

“If you take a tomato that you’ve picked from your garden and it goes straight onto your plate, the whole nutrient content is much higher. If the push is to have good fresh food, the value chains do tend to be shorter.”

The estimated cost of obesity to Australian society was $58.2 billion in 2008, with almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of Australians currently overweight or obese.

The symposium will feature international speakers from the UK and France in addition to representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the CSIRO, the Department of Primary Industries, the NSW Farmers’ Federation, and the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, Marie Bashir Institute and the Menzies Centre for Health Policy.

Event details

What: Resetting the Australian table: adding value and adding health’ Symposium

When: Wednesday 19 August, 1.30 to 5.00pm

Where: Teachers' College Assembly Hall
              Old Teachers College (A22)
              University of Sydney

Cost: Free

Symposium will be followed by a free Q&A panel discussion from 5.30 to 6.30pm

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