Q+A: Susan Wood interviews Gareth Morgan
Sunday 29 September, 2013
Susan Wood interviews Gareth Morgan
Processed and unhealthy foods should be taxed to help combat the diseases of ‘affluenza’ says outspoken economist and author Gareth Morgan
The co-author of ‘Appetite for Destruction’ told TVNZ’S Q+A programme that an excise tax similar to that used on tobacco and alcohol should be placed on the most unhealthy food.
“But if you have front-of-package labelling – one to five or whatever – as you said, traffic lights – and, you know, the one with the red light attracts the highest tax, you're using your lights system to both inform and penalise people for it.”
He would use the proceeds of the tax to go straight back into the health system, ‘either to subsidise directly foods that are green lights, or to basically pay for bariatric surgery – whichever way you want to do it.’
Gareth Morgan rejects the proposal of making fruit and vegetables exempt from GST.
Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TV ONE and one hour later on TV ONE plus 1. Repeated Sunday evening at 11:30pm. Streamed live at www.tvnz.co.nz.
Thanks to the support from NZ On Air.
Q+A is on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/NZQandA#!/NZQandA and on Twitter, http://twitter.com/#!/NZQandA
Q+A – 29 September, 2013
Interviewed by Susan Wood
SUSAN Gareth Morgan's new book Appetite for Destruction says we need to be eating more fruit and vegetables, and we should target unhealthy and what he calls “fake” foods in the same way we did smoking. Good morning.
GARETH Good morning, Susan.
SUSAN So, what, you get sent outside to eat your dessert, the way we sent smokers outside?
GARETH Yeah, that’s right! That’d be good, wouldn’t it? That’d sort it.
SUSAN We have been hearing for a long time five-plus – five-plus vegetables a day. We know that we’re supposed to have less sugar. We know that we’re supposed to have less salt. What are you telling us that’s any different?
GARETH Well, I suppose it’s the... what's the word I’m looking for? It’s just the frequency of processed food now. It’s not about fast food. That’s one sector of it. You go through a supermarket and it’s virtually all now processed food, which is not a crime in its own right, obviously. But when you do the decomposition of processed food and you see how energy-intensive it is and now nutrient-light it is, our bodies simply can't handle it. So if I walk down a cereal aisle, there's virtually nothing in that aisle that is a cereal as your mother or grandmother—
SUSAN ...grandmother would have known it, yeah.
GARETH They are basically sugar fixes. You look at something like Powerade – same sort of thing. Nutri-Grain, you know, which is “Iron Man food” – you actually have to be an iron man to eat it, otherwise it’s going to upset your system.
SUSAN But people want food that is going to last, so it’s going to sit on the shelf, that’s cheap and accessible.
GARETH Absolutely, and that’s what the food manufacturing industry has done over the last 30, 40 years. So they’ve made far more food available globally. A lot more people don’t go hungry as a result, so those are the benefits of what they’ve done, absolutely. We do actually waste a third of food, by the way. We throw it away. So there's no such thing as a shortage of food now. There’s problems with distribution. But it’s the quality of the food that I’m talking about. There's two things that have really emerged in the last 30 or 40 years. First one is we have four meals a day, not three, and that’s because we snack all the time. And people, you know, put food in front of you. I’ve been sitting in your green room, you know. Have a look at the food in there.
SUSAN That’s breakfast.
GARETH It’s complete crap. It’s unbelievable.
SUSAN (laughs) OK! I’ll tell the TVNZ cafe that!
GARETH And the trouble is the colours excite me. Now, I see that fruit juice. I go for it. It’s a complete sugar fix. I can't help myself. So it’s quantity and it’s quality.
SUSAN Let’s talk about some solutions, though. You want some sort of tax on unhealthy food.
GARETH Amongst— I mean, if you look at what we do, we have corrective taxes all the time. We have excise duties on petrol. We have them on booze. We have them on smokes. So there's nothing wrong with using corrective tax. What you do with the proceeds matters.
SUSAN How would you work out which foods to tax, though?
GARETH Well, food labelling’s come a long way. Food labelling in New Zealand’s terrible. I mean, you need a degree to understand it.
SUSAN And a magnifying glass.
GARETH Yeah, well, of course, it’s run by the industry. You don’t really want the industry to be in this. What you need are the health professionals to be telling us.
SUSAN But we’ve got a government here that’s ruled out the traffic light system – you know, red means stop; green means go. We don’t even have anything on our foods. We’ve got a healthy heart tick, which is maybe OK, but certainly not comprehensive. We have no way of knowing what's healthy food in terms of labelling.
GARETH We’ve got a government of conservatives, you know. So they hate change, so they’ll be really slow. But, you know, once the people say, “We need this,” you watch the politicians run.
SUSAN But, I mean, there is no movement for that at the moment, is there? The people aren’t saying, “We need it.”
GARETH Well, I think that’s why, if you can make people pay the price for the consequences of their actions—
SUSAN But you’ve got to have a way of labelling food unhealthy before you can tax it, don’t you?
GARETH The ways are there. We just choose not to implement those ways at the moment.
SUSAN What about Labour’s idea of taking GST off fresh fruit and veg?
GARETH Well, I wouldn’t interfere with GST that’s the first thing. It’s the wrong thing to do. The whole key to GST is to have complete coverage with no exceptions. We learnt that ages ago.
SUSAN But wouldn’t it do something good? It would make more people eat fruit and vegetables.
GARETH Yeah, but there's another tax. You just use an excise tax, like we do on smokes and booze – same thing. So it's basically the same argument.
SUSAN So you’re saying it’s pretty simple.
GARETH Yeah, yeah.
SUSAN But, you see, I can see a packet of cigarettes. I know what they are. But, a ham sandwich in white bread – is that good food, bad food?
GARETH But if you have front-of-package labelling – one to five or whatever – as you said, traffic lights – and, you know, the one with the red light attracts the highest tax, you're using your lights system to both inform and penalise people for it. And then you use the proceeds of the tax to go straight back into the health system, either to subsidise directly foods that are green lights, or to basically pay for bariatric surgery – whichever way you want to do it.
SUSAN You’re talking about food vouchers as well, aren’t you, for good food?
GARETH Well, that’s a possibility, but, I mean, I—
SUSAN But isn’t that sort of Nanny State interfering—?
GARETH It’s all Nanny State. You know, if we didn’t have Nanny State, there’d be a jungle. So let’s get that right. I mean, Nanny State’s what the right wing always talk about, but we have corrective taxes all around us, so everything we do in terms of correcting or social engineering is Nanny State. So I don’t buy that argument. What we’re trying to do here is stop the consequences of these diseases of “affluenza” – you know, the cancers, the obesity, the diabetes – you know, all these things never prevailed in ancient societies, and that’s because we are programmed, you and I, for where food is scarce. You know, for an environment where food is scarce. And that’s why, you know, dopamine is all about getting salt, sugar and fat. But now salt, sugar and fat are everywhere. You know, your green room’s full of it. That’s my point. So there’s no shortage now, Susan. But my body hasn’t adjusted to that.
SUSAN OK, I understand that. Is there anywhere in the world where they are doing the sort of things you're talking about? So, taxing and then having other programmes. You’ve got to educate as well as—
GARETH Yeah, no, absolutely.
SUSAN But is there anywhere in the world that is actually—? Because we know it’s a first-world problem, this epidemic of obesity and—
GARETH Well, it’s not happening in America...
SUSAN No, funny that.
GARETH ...where the free market reigns, so-called. But it is starting to happen in Europe. It’s definitely happening in the UK with the better labelling. So, yeah, it’s underway. It’s because the problem is so big, and it’s so expensive for taxpayers. So we do have to address this.
SUSAN If you do address it, though, does it mean that some people won't be able to eat as well as they could? I mean, a lot of people do struggle to fill up the supermarket trolley, and that’s why they’re going for the cheaper processed stuff.
GARETH That’s true, so that’s why you use the proceeds of the taxes to come around and subsidise wholefoods or subsidise the health consequences of eating that food. So, yeah, there's no free lunch here. (chuckles)
SUSAN And you don’t think it’s too complex figuring out the good stuff from the bad stuff?
GARETH No, not with— No, health professionals can do that really quickly. It’s not an issue.
SUSAN So, with the greatest of respect—
GARETH But get the food industry in there, and all hell breaks loose.
SUSAN You’re no expert on food.
GARETH No, no.
SUSAN So why would anybody listen to you about this, more than all the experts who give us information.
GARETH Well, simply because it’s, like— I wasn’t an expert on climate change. I’m not an expert on the health system. But I go and do the research. So it’s not opinion. It’s what's the state of the research. And I write a book on it, and if you want to argue with me, argue about the book.
SUSAN No, no, I’m not arguing about it. I’m not arguing about it. I’m just wondering why people would listen to you—
GARETH Well, I’m saying look at the arguments and address the arguments, and then I’ll listen to you.
SUSAN I’m suspecting a few cat-lovers may not be…um so open to your ideas.
GARETH No, it’s funny that, isn’t it, the old cat thing.
SUSAN Still getting a bit of flak about that?
GARETH Yeah, I get a lot of flak about that. I was in North Korea a couple of weeks ago, and I was eating dog, actually. And I thought, “Shivers, here’s an opportunity.” And so I talked to them about the possibility of live cat exports.
SUSAN I wondered where you were going with that!
GARETH But they said they didn’t like cats.
SUSAN Oh, boy, you have just set the cat amongst the pigeons, literally, with cat-lovers. Just tell us you were joking.
GARETH Well, there's a bit of that.
SUSAN Come on.
GARETH It’s all about being a responsible pet owner, isn’t it? It’s not anti-cat.
SUSAN So, what is next for you? What's your next book?
GARETH Oh, next book is on the future of the Treaty of Waitangi. Should be out in March.
SUSAN That’ll be controversial.
GARETH That’s been a hard one.
SUSAN Can I—? Oh, this is a vaguely rude question, but I know you can take it. Is it just that you’ve sort of got too much time and too much money and you need to entertain yourself writing these books?
GARETH I’ve always needed to entertain myself.
SUSAN So this is what this is about, really?
GARETH Even when I was employed, I needed to work every day. I’ve never kept out of trouble, if that’s your question. I find trouble far more exciting, Susan.
SUSAN Well, go back to the green room, and please help yourself to an orange juice and any of that other unhealthy food you fancy.