Can we stop the rot?

HOW do we change (for the better) the way that people eat and drink? It is both a very simple question and an unbelievably complex one, because it goes to the heart of the whole health and healthy food debate. It takes in everything from the pros and cons of organic farming, genetically modified crops and Fair Trade, to the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, international trade agreements and the role of governments in influencing how and what we eat.

In the past few days we have seen hair-raising reports of the number of children having to have rotten teeth removed under general anaesthetic and the British Medical Association calling for a tax on sweet and fizzy drinks. The Royal College of Surgeons says that 26,000 youngsters needed to have rotten teeth removed in hospital in the past year and suggested that warnings could be put on the packaging of fizzy drinks and sweets. The BMA wants a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks to help to tackle the obesity crisis.

The dental report makes you shudder, recalling 18th century caricatures of grand ladies with shards of teeth, their mouths destroyed by their passion for the relatively new refined sugar, and the horrifying fact, within memory of older members of society, that many people had all their teeth removed and replaced with dentures as a 21st birthday present to save them from the horrors of tooth rot.

There is widespread concern among health professionals about the impact of sugar on health – including obesity, type 1 diabetes and tooth decay. The BMA estimates that poor diets cause around 70,000 premature deaths each year and suggests that the income from the proposed sugary drinks tax could be used to subsidise the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The BMA report, called Food for Thought, warns that a 330ml can of pop is likely to contain up to nine teaspoons of sugar that are simply “empty calories”. In a brief introduction to this major report, the BMA says: “In the UK, the traditional public health challenges of undernutrition and unsafe food and water have been largely replaced by the risks of poor diet. We should not tolerate that the next generation is growing up with the normality of regularly consuming processed and fast-food, or that there are children who have no concept of where their food comes from. Central to this is creating an environment where it is normal, easy and enjoyable for children and young people to eat healthily.”

Food for Thought sets out the measures needed to help promote healthier diets among children and young people. The BMA acknowledges that many of the measures “will not sit comfortably with the government’s current approach to partnership working with industry.” But the report cites countries where taxes on specific food groups – such as the sugar drinks tax introduced in Mexico – have been shown to cut consumption.

The BMA proposal seems perfectly reasonable. Why should sweet fizzy drinks – some of which can dissolve small coins left in them overnight – not be subject to additional taxes as wine, spirits and beer are, whether they are organic, artisan or mass-produced. Of course the soft drinks manufacturers are up in arms, but it is hard to be optimistic about this (or any) government’s ability to stand up to the global giants of the food industry and introduce such a tax.

In fact, things may get worse if the international trade agreement known as TTIP goes through, resulting in many potentially undesirable “relaxations” of trade-hindering regulations on food labelling or the use of genetically modified products.

In any event, most of us hate being lectured and told that we must (or must not) do something because it is good for us. Legislating for our health often leads to criticism of “nanny state” behaviour, and there will be those who will argue that any such tax will hit the poorest in society. This is almost certainly true because these sweet (often artificially sweetened) fizzy drinks are always cheaper than healthier alternatives.

It is better to encourage people to discover things for themselves, so let’s end on a more optimistic note, at least here in the West Country, where Melplash Agricultural Show and Washingpool Farm Shop at Bridport are working on a joint venture called Discover Farming, to help children and young people learn more about where food comes from. The project, which will be featured in many aspects of this year’s Melplash Show, on Thursday 27th August, is based at a redundant school building which has been moved from Wareham to Washingpool Farm. It is all about helping young people to understand the connection between food and farming and the important role that farming and agriculture play in the local economy and environment.

For more information visit, and to read the BMA Food for Thought report visit

Fanny Charles