Natural, healthy food for all?

The greatest spur to consumption of natural food would be if chemically produced food caused people to drop dead. Unfortunately it doesn't and, barring the odd food scare, which is virtually always related to animal products, there doesn't seem to be hordes of people clutching at their throats, gasping and keeling over because they've just eaten an apple sprayed with pesticide. Tough one this because then you have to make more subtle arguments about the nature of food production that relate to the ecology of our countryside, or to possible benefits of flavour and taste and an increased mineral content. For the naturally gregarious amongst us, I could also point to evidence of greater male fertility in natural food eaters. But all this doesn't matter a damn if your diet is impoverished and your food choices come down to money - or lack of it.

Healthy food - naturally produced or otherwise - costs money, and much more than many processed foods that give greater calorific value without any waste. Even in the world of processed foods, simple choices based on cost can be disastrous in nutritional terms. Take the example of someone making the choice of spaghetti hoops over baked beans because of a penny difference between cans. A very small monetary difference but a whole world of difference in nutritional value. Take also the fact that processed foods by their very nature of longer shelf life contain unnatural additives along with that little extra salt and a lot of extra sugar.

Getting into arguments about healthy food and nutritional value is dangerous ground on many fronts. Forinstance, new research sometimes overturns our best-held beliefs. Whereas a high fibre diet has long been thought to have a range of benefits, not least in reducing bowel cancers, recent evidence suggests that a low sugar diet is more effective in preventing the cancer than fibre. On another front, we often think that poorer people just need that little bit of education on what food to buy and how to prepare and cook it. Oops! That's just patronised possibly 30% of the UK population. We condemn them for being poor and then throw in ignorance as well.

What is inescapably true is that our food lives have changed dramatically, and in directions that takes us away from simple connections to food. For many, food is no longer a social event; fewer people grow some of their own food (with the consequence that gardens get smaller and other urban growing spaces are lost); domestic science is now food technology; that very food technology has given us the most miraculous array of processed foods; local food production is rare in many areas; food distribution is nationally and internationally organised; and we waste money on farming subsidies. And with all this wonderful progress, a report arrived late last year that showed that hunger had reappeared on city streets, where mothers on low incomes were going without meals to feed their children, and that the effects of poor nutrition would be felt down the generations.

The Acheson report on health inequalities highlighted the lack of fresh food available to mothers and children in deprived areas. It categorically linked health inequalities to income inequalities and it gave a number of areas for future policy developments, one of which was nutrition and the Common Agricultural Policy. This report was no anomaly - the National Food Alliance launched a Food Poverty Network three years ago with funding from the Health Education Authority; the LA21 guidance note on Sustainable Agriculture and Food explored the links between environment, food, health and poverty; and the World Health Organisation has an Urban Food and Nutrition Action Plan that is subtitled Local Production For Local Consumption.

In discussions last year on the government green paper Our Healthier Nation, it was recognised that issues of food and nutrition needed to be in the forthcoming white paper on Health. Healthy Living Centres and Health Action Zones funded by the lottery and the DoH have already embraced Community Food Initiatives so that there will now be funding for community cafes, cook and eat sessions, food growing projects and bulk-buying co-ops. As we know, many urban community food growing projects start out using natural methods of production, but there is no presumption for naturally produced food anywhere in all these health initiatives. Ask yourself why that is? We may believe that naturally produced food is the best there is but until it can be both available and affordable for any of the people of our nation - including the deprived - then it will just be another affluent indulgence.

 Mark Fisher (who is fed up with the word organic and prefers natural) 22 January 1999