Europe is struggling with an obesity crisis. We have created a society in which consumers are surrounded on nearly all sides by sweet, salty, fatty and over-portioned temptations. While the opinion that consumers themselves should take responsibility for their own diet is valid to some extent, governments have been introducing policies that are fundamentally food-related, with regulations on fruit at school, changes to VAT rates and licences to establish a business. However, there is still more we can do to encourage consumers to eat healthily and sustainably, given the failure of the market to address these issues. To begin with, there has been a significant increase in the social costs of diet-related diseases. These are costs that we all bear. WHO estimates indicate that the costs of obesity are 2 to 7% of the total health costs worldwide. A second argument in favour of a consumer-oriented food policy is that a healthy diet and a sustainable diet are intrinsically linked. A reduction in meat consumption and an increase in the consumption of fruit and vegetables would relieve the pressure on our world’s natural resources. This transition plays a key role in our efforts to mitigate the consequences of climate change.
The Netherlands: good infrastructure for policy research
If we are to successfully combat these negative effects, we require effective policy. But what counts as ‘effective policy’? The answer is policy research with sound scientific backing. In concrete terms, this means research that gathers reliable data on nutrition, consumer behaviour and health before, during and after interventions in order to assess the effectiveness of a policy instrument. The Netherlands has a good infrastructure for policy research, with numerous planning offices and assessment agencies as well as universities that are leaders in research into nutrition and health.
These include Wageningen University & Research and the ‘Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu’ (Dutch national institute for public health and the environment, RIVM), which have a long history of policy research and good data sets in some subareas. And partly thanks to the current interest in nutrition and health, consumers are much more open to new technologies such as smartphone apps, like FoodProfiler (www.wur.nl/foodprofiler).
… but food policy has a European dimension
At the same time, many aspects of food policy have a European dimension. We know that policies are most effective when they are made in consultation with the international business community. After all, companies such as Carrefour, Sodexo, Unilever or Nestlé tailor their adverts, packaging and recipes to at least one regional market and, in many cases, to the European market as a whole. Second, we are better able to implement measures when we work together. Take the Danish ‘fat tax’, a measure that fell flat due to its complexity and the way in which it led many Danish consumers to do their shopping over the border in Germany or Sweden. Owners of Dutch petrol stations along the border are all too familiar with this behaviour. A third argument in favour of international research collaboration is the fact that countries can learn from each other. For instance, if France’s decision to offer healthy school meals leads to an improvement in schoolchildren’s health and grades, policymakers in the Netherlands may consider implementing this measure in neighbourhoods in which we know that many children start the school day on an empty stomach. And finally, there is an argument that appeals to the Dutch preoccupation with thrift: joining forces means less expense, as the costs are shared.
One European research infrastructure
In light of this, Wageningen University & Research has teamed up with fellow knowledge institutes from eight European countries to build one European infrastructure for scientific research into consumer, nutrition and health. A variety of instruments have been set up for this purpose, including the European research project RICHFIELDS (www.richfields.eu). We expect the groundwork for this common research infrastructure to be completed by 2023. Having one European infrastructure means we can soon look forward to a situation in which we all use the same indicators, are in a much better position to utilise each other’s knowledge and are able to significantly reduce the costs of research. This will enable us to establish a solid basis for effective European food policy.