Wheat field

How will we feed the future?

31 October 2016

Leading experts will discuss how we can protect the future food system, while new research reveals our food labelling system is better than we think.

We need to talk to people affected by the problems, listen and understand their language, and translate this into better decision-making and policy.
Professor Corinna Hawkes, City, University of London

Eating is essential for our survival but the global food system is under threat on a number of fronts including population growth, unsustainable agriculture, marketisation, waste and climate change.

Leading experts from around the world will discuss possible solutions to these issues and more this week when the Sydney Law School and the Charles Perkins Centre host the Food Governance Conference from 1-3 November at the University of Sydney.

Professor Corinna Hawkes, Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, will deliver the conference’s Opening Night Public Oration on Tuesday 1 November. She will argue the biggest issue preventing change in the food system is a lack of governance.

“The fundamental problem is that we do not have the kind of coherent policies or decision-making processes in place that is fit-for-purpose to solve issues in the global food system, and this perpetuates a host of problems, from obesity to poor food access,” said Professor Hawkes, a co-author of the Global Nutrition Report and specialist on the links between food policy, food systems and health.

“At the moment, it is the ‘experts’ who speak, in their own language. We need to talk to people affected by the problems, listen and understand their language, and translate this into better decision-making and policy.

“There are always going to be a diversity of perspectives about what to do – between different people, between actors in the food system, between different parts of governments. Let’s see this diversity as an opportunity, rather than a threat.”

The conference will explore the role of law, regulation, and policy in promoting food security and safety, as well as in improving nutrition and preventing obesity and disease.

A food star rating info panel

Australia's rating scheme is up there with the best in the world.

Stars, traffic lights and stop signs: Which food labelling system is best?

Public health lawyer and PhD candidate Alexandra Jones will share insights from her research into food nutrition labelling systems worldwide at the conference.

Based in the University’s Charles Perkins Centre and the George Institute for Global Health, Ms Jones has examined 18 food labelling initiatives operating in more than 50 countries to draw lessons for policymakers looking to implement or evaluate similar policies, presenting the most up-to-date overview available.

“Despite recent public criticism, Australia’s Health Star Rating scheme is up there with the best in the world. Like the UK’s traffic light system, ours is one of the few hybrid schemes that combine both numbers and an evaluative graphical component which ‘scores’ foods along a spectrum,” she said.

Since Sweden’s Nordic Keyhole system was first implemented in 1989, there has been rapid growth in food labelling systems worldwide, with 10 of the policies implemented in the past five years alone.

Salt was the most commonly measured nutrient, included in three-quarters of all food labelling systems, followed by fats, total sugars and energy content. Visually, the labels varied greatly worldwide, with five of the initiatives purely reductive (presenting only nutritional information with no opinion or recommendations), 13 containing at least some evaluative component and six ‘hybrids’ displaying a combination of both.

While most initiatives worldwide are still voluntary, countries including Ecuador and Chile are implementing mandatory nutritional label requirements to strengthen the public health impact of these schemes – and Australia should follow suit, Ms Jones will argue.

“The evidence for how consumers interact with these labels is complex. Less examined, but perhaps more promising is a focus on how these labels impact manufacturers to improve what ends up on our shelves in the first place. Making reformulation the core objective may be a more effective and equitable way to improve population diets,” she said.     

“Just like in the tobacco control context where Australia is also a global leader, better labels and packaging are only one aspect of the response we need to improve our diets. A comprehensive approach – including taxes on unhealthy foods and restrictions on marketing to children – are also needed to improve our food environment.”

Launch of Food Governance Node

The Food Governance Conference marks the formal launch of the Food Governance Node at the Charles Perkins Centre, which creates a platform for cross-disciplinary research by clinicians, lawyers, health scientists and nutritionists as they develop new initiatives aimed at preventing diet-related diseases.

“We also hope that the conference will showcase the diverse research being conducted in Australia on food governance, including not just food law and policy, but how broader social and economic policies affect access to nutritious, sustainable and equitable food,” said Dr Belinda Reeve, lecturer in health law at Sydney Law School and one of the conference organisers.

Highlights include talks on food labelling, obesity prevention, food law and regulation, including advertising to children, food security, and the health and nutrition of Indigenous Australians.

Download full conference program here.