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Six UK policy proposals to tackle the global sugar problem

A new briefing paper by a University of Warwick academic outlines six proposals for UK policy that could help the country tackle sugar-related problems at home and abroad.

The paper, called Sugar Shift: Six Ideas for a Healthier and Fairer Food System, has been written by Dr Ben Richardson, associate professor in international political economy and published by the Food Research Collaboration (FRC). The paper argues that a reduction in sugar consumption, recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), must be achieved by meeting both public health and social justice concerns.

The paper came out of a meeting of civil society groups and academics on sugar policy, hosted by the FRC. Interviews were then conducted by Dr Richardson with people working in the sugar industry and in local government.

The six policy proposals are:

1. Introduce a 20 per cent sugary drinks duty and ring-fence it for public health programmes.

In England, the responsibility for improving local health and providing public health services now rests with local authorities. In the context of limited investment in disease prevention and further funding cuts to come, ways of financing healthy lifestyles for all are needed. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, duties should be ring-fenced for the devolved NHS.

2. Make the promotion of healthy and sustainable diets mandatory for food and drink corporations.

The Responsibility Deal should be revived by using peer-review, multi-stakeholder monitoring and government sanctions to encourage major manufacturers and retailers to adopt and implement meaningful strategies for change – including, but not restricted to, sugar reduction. Separately, and to avoid reifying a corporate food economy, small businesses should be supported through local cooperatives and more water supplied through public drinking fountains.

3. Un-brand corporate social responsibility and feature different body sizes in food and drink advertising.

Alongside restrictions on advertising products high in sugar and fat to children, companies that choose to support sports activities and eating programmes as part of their corporate social responsibility agendas should do so without branding their initiatives. Advertisers should also be more representative in who they include in their adverts. Excluding those considered obese reinforces the message that being this size is something shameful.

4. Reform subsidies to sugar beet producers in the EU and support small-scale, mixed farming in the UK.

Agricultural policy is connected to both unbalanced diets and unfair trade. Redirecting the millions of euros spent through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to directly subsidise sugar in the EU would raise prices and allow sugarcane exporters in poor countries to compete on a more equal basis. Giving less CAP money to large landowners and more to family farmers through rural development funds in the UK would also support the provision of direct, fresh, sustainable food.

5. Pay a real living wage in UK-owned sugar companies and UK-based food companies.

Better jobs make for healthier lives. Associated British Foods is a multinational sugar company, overseeing the livelihoods of thousands of people across Africa and China as well as in the UK. Its African subsidiary pays its lowest-waged workers in Malawi around $2 per day. Increasing this by just a dollar would make a huge difference to poverty levels and set an international example of UK business values. Domestically, employees of food and drink manufacturers and retailers have lower than average wages. Some companies in this sector have become accredited by the Living Wage Foundation to demonstrate commitment to decent wages; others should follow suit, encouraged by more ambitious public sector procurement standards.

6. Advance a global convention to protect and promote healthy diets in the World Health Organization.

Sales of sugary products are expanding in poorer parts of the world, not by accident but via concerted marketing campaigns. As diseases like diabetes follow in their train, providing consumers with accurate nutritional information, evidence-based guidelines and age-appropriate adverts is clearly important in every country. The UK’s Department for International Development should thus support the internationalisation of healthy diets by driving forward the draft ‘Global Convention’ as part of its Nutrition for Growth agenda.

Dr Richardson, who is author of the book Sugar said: “A reduction in sugar consumption will help lower certain health risks, but food policy must be about more than just restricting what people eat.

“To create a fairer food system in the UK and internationally we need a holistic approach to food policy. This approach links what we eat to what we grow and also links health concerns to social justice concerns.

“This paper shows how a focus on sugar can be used to address these wider issues. Using a sugary drinks duty to fund the public health interventions that support active lifestyles for all is one example. Other proposals address economic issues like a lack of diversity in the food and farming economy, as well as social issues like fat shaming.

“While sugar is in the crosshairs of debate, we should think about addressing the other ills in the food system with which it is associated.”

Chair of the FRC, Professor Tim Lang, said: “The Prime Minister has a tricky problem on sugar, a symbol of the crisis creeping up on him about food policy generally. On the one hand, he’s aware of the dire health problems associated with sugar. And on the other hand, he’s got a business ‘lock-in’ from a powerful sector of agro-food industries churning out foods filled with sugar and resistant to big change.

“Sugar consumption and production are affected by EU trade law and changing quotas for sugar beet production. But in boosting the prospects of European farmers, it is predicted that poor sugar cane farmers in former British colonies will suffer. And there are major questions to be answered about land used for sugar farming.

“Government needs longer-term strategy to relink production and consumption for human and environmental health and to create decent jobs producing good quality foods that don’t add burdens to the NHS like sugar. We must look at the evidence from around the world on ways to reduce sugar consumption, such as in food taxes, but also ensure that social justice and fairness are part of a new food policy fit for all people, not a small but powerful vested interest.”

11 February 2016

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For further details please contact Nicola Jones, Communications Manager, University of Warwick 07920531221 or