So many challenges to the integrity of what we eat

Posted: 21 March 2022 | | No comments yet

As Food Integrity 2022 kicks off (21-25 March), Professor Chris Elliott explores why the matter of global food integrity remains so important.

chris' corner

In the week that New Food holds its Food Integrity conference it seems timely to reflect on where we are on matters of integrity. I have long harped on about the many challenges we face in terms of feeding the world’s growing population with nutritious food that’s safe, authentic and produced in sustainable and ethical ways. Personally, it has been a bit of a rollercoaster; at times I feel confident of succeeding, while other times much less so. I’d like to give a few examples of why this is.

After taking part in a panel discussion on ‘What will we eat? ‘at the World Expo last week, chaired by the excellent Professor Tim Benton, it was clear that real change can only be affected by governments pulling levers around taxation and subsides on what we eat. However, there doesn’t seem to be too many brave politicians that will actually pull the right levers, especially in the UK. The disharmony between DEFRA and the farming community is palpable and perhaps at an all-time low.

I have also been a long-time advocate of the importance of science and technology in supporting integrity in our global food system, and as a scientist, I hear about so many new and better ways that our sector is looking to produce safe, nutritious and sustainable food. For these methods to succeed, we need to trust what we read and the scientists who write it.

I believe one of the most important publications of note is ‘Global Burden of Disease’, which has guided scientists and policy makers for the past 30 years; offering insight into what dietary changes are needed to protect and improve human health. This is published in the world leading journal The Lancet.

However, much to my surprise the latest Global Burden of Disease publication raised new and alarming issues about the adverse health effects of consuming red meat. Alongside a group of academics from six different universities, we challenged the evidence base for making such a claim. It took us nine hard months to get The Lancet to publish our article, but once it did, suddenly the main author of the Global Burden of Disease paper admitted it contained serious errors. We have now called upon The Lancet to retract this publication. No doubt this will be another long battle but one we will strive to win.

To finish on a much more positive note; I was invited to join a Task Force co-chaired by the Scottish Government and food industry to understand the impact of the Ukraine invasion on food security. I had expected this would be about ensuring an adequate food supply to Scotland and to protect their large food industry. But the discussions went much wider than this, and many issues of integrity around the global food system were raised; in particular, we explored the impact on Ukrainian citizens as well as others countries that are much more likely to be affected over Scotland. To me, it showed that integrity matters even when situations are extremely difficult.

I hope Food Integrity 2022 will serve to reinforce the importance of the many facets of integrity and how these really matter to many in the world who are less well-off and far more vulnerable. This conference stands out; it is one where so many difficult topics are discussed by so many knowledgeable individuals. It is not one to miss.