Big ideas and even bigger questions about our food systems

29 July 2019 | Policy

Our Policy and Public Affairs Assistant, Brandon I, represented World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) at the Food Governance Conference 3-5 July 2019 in Sydney, Australia. Here are some of his reflections.

Hosted by Sydney Law School, the Charles Perkins Centre and The George Institute for Global Health, the Food Governance Conference 2019 explored the role of law, regulation and policy in tackling the challenges of the 21st-century food system.

Momentum continues to build

One of my key priorities for attending the conference was to engage with the research being conducted around sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) taxes and front-of-pack labelling (FOPL). These nutrition policy actions were the subjects of the first two reports in the WCRF Building Momentum series that outline the lessons learned from governments around the world who have already implemented an evidence-informed nutrition policy.

There were at least seven presentations on SSB taxes and FOPL policy actions – and likely more that I didn’t get to see. On top of this, a keynote address was delivered by Dr Juan A. Rivera on the lessons learned from advocating and implementing the Mexican SSB tax in 2014. This served as a great opportunity for me to distribute copies of the Building Momentum reports that I brought along to the conference, as well as promote the Building Momentum series presentation to be delivered by our Policy Advisory Group member, Anita George.

After days of impromptu conversations and constant (and perhaps excessive) tweeting, it was heartening to see the warm reception of Anita’s presentation by a full room. Furthermore, I was surprised at just how valued the Building Momentum reports were, especially when I received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback, not only from academics, but also from government representatives and other non-government organisations. This, combined with the fact that the reports I brought along were all snatched up by day three, marked a big success for us and made our presence at the conference all the more worthwhile.

Conflicts of interest steal the show…

There were big ideas discussed throughout the conference, but none stuck with me more than those of conflicts of interest. Some presentations highlighted food industry actions regarding political interference, lobbying power and influence on scientific research. Even our name tags were colour coded to categorise the type of organisation attendees were from to promote transparency. But the crescendo came on day two with a panel discussion on managing conflicts of interest in nutrition research and policy. All three panellists raised thought-provoking questions that centred around research funding, payment of travel costs, industry invited presentations and the notion of perceived vs actual conflicts of interest. In general, most of the audience were in agreement that accepting research funding from multinational food companies was a clear-cut case of conflicts of interest. But what about those not so clear-cut?

In his panel address, Gary Sacks presented the case where his research required the use of food and retail industry-supplied data in order to rank companies by their nutrition policy commitments. The question was: did that relationship constitute a conflict of interest, even without direct industry funding? Where was the line in the sand? It was hard to say at that point, and I suspect much of the audience felt the same. It was clear that there was a plethora of perspectives in the room and no obvious consensus. However, one thing was for sure – this would keep everyone talking for days to come, including me.

Overall, the Food Governance Conference was an engaging and thought-provoking experience with many prominent issues raised such as food sustainability, food security and human rights that I haven’t even begun to touch on here. Nevertheless, there was clearly a significant amount of important nutrition policy work being done. But critically, it was obvious to me that WCRF’s work, both in Building Momentum and NOURISHING, was highly valued by all attendees.

Brandon I | 29 July 2019