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Opinion: How one country saw epidemic illnesses plummet – and Ireland could too

A dietary metamorphosis adopted in Finland in the 1970s has seen heart disease, some cancers and obesity levels drop dramatically. We should take note.

Frank Armstrong

THE SUCCESSFUL ADOPTION by one country of a set of policies to deal with a particular challenge may not easily be replicated elsewhere. Each country has peculiar cultural norms that can frustrate the best laid plans. We can, nonetheless, draw lessons from other experiences while acknowledging that each challenge is unique.

Finland has topped international league tables for reading, mathematics and science among 15-year-olds for some time. This is achieved in a system devoid of inspections, uniforms and fee-paying schools. Crucially, all ability groups are taught together until the age of 16. Slavish imitation in Ireland would be neither possible nor desirable, but judicious application would surely benefit our own beleaguered system.

Another aspect of Finnish social policy which has relevance here is how that country responded to an epidemic of heart disease in the 1970s when Finland had among the highest rates in the world.

By addressing a high prevalence of smoking, lack of exercise and diets high in saturated fats the prevalence of heart attacks and strokes fell by an amazing 75 to 80 per cent. Incidences of lung cancer also plummeted nearly 60 per cent and per capita cholesterol levels dropped by an average of 18 per cent.

A systematic change in consuming and producing food

Apart from encouraging exercise including mandating recreational facilities in towns and villages through a Sports Act and curbing smoking, the main plank was a systematic change in the way Finns consumed and produced food.

Farmers were encouraged to shift from dairies to berries, and produce rapeseed oil rather than butter while pig farmers were encouraged to shift to mushroom cultivation, and the addition of salt in food was closely monitored.

Amazingly, fruit and vegetable consumption tripled from 44 pounds per person per year in 1972 to more than 130 pounds a person by 2000.

This dietary metamorphosis was achieved through a multi-pronged, community-wide approach. Throughout the country doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and high school teachers provided advice on healthy living. National television got behind the campaign. A small country was able to lift itself out of an unhealthy trough by connecting people to home grown healthy food.

How can Ireland tackle this problem?

Could such a transformation occur in Ireland which is projected to be the fattest country in Europe? It would take a seismic shift and one of the stumbling blocks is that successive governments, including this one, have regarded agriculture as a source of commodities for export rather than food for the people.

In her history of the Department of Agriculture Mary Daly wrote: ‘It is evident that the Department has traditionally looked at agricultural matters from the perspective of the producer rather than the consumer’. Recently in an interview on RTE’s Countrywide IFA president Eddie Downey agreed that: ‘As farmers, we are commodity producers.’

Since independence, farmers have been encouraged – often through subsidies – to produce food for the international market rather than a varied and balanced diet for the people. Consequently, a tiny horticultural sector provides a paltry range of home-grown fruits and vegetables. The local food we are encouraged to eat in order to support the local economy is usually the kind that tends to intensify prevailing morbidities. Irish food production is an inversion of the traditional food pyramid.

A national campaign to increase our connection to home-grown vegetables and fruit could have dramatic benefits, but at present there is no political will for this to occur: any shift in agricultural priorities would interfere with the production targets of Harvest 2020 which are overwhelming in the area of animal products.

A dietary shift towards a plant-based diet

The almost €3 billion paid out by the EU in agricultural subsidies support current policies even though research is indicating that a dietary shift towards a plant-based diet would increase many people’s life expectancies and decrease morbidity. Most recently, a large scale study by the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California found that high levels of dietary animal protein in people under 65 years of age was linked to a fourfold increase in their risk of death from cancer or diabetes, and almost doubled the risk of dying from any cause over an 18-year period.

Eating more vegetables will cut one’s risk of dying from heart disease and cancer. A recent UK study showed that increasing intake of fruit and vegetables (especially the latter) to seven portions per day reduced a person’s likelihood of death by any cause by 42%.

The Finnish example shows what can be achieved when a small country puts its collective mind to tackling a problem. But in Ireland we must confront vested interests that rely on the continued production of many foods that mar our health.

Most cattle farms actually make no profit and only survive through subsidies, so any shift in the subsidy regime would not see farmers losing out. The losers would be the minority of wealthy farmers and multinational firms such as ABP Foods. The improved health outcomes of such a shift would surely outweigh any losses to the wider economy, and alternative export strategies could be pursued.

As noted, the Finns have an education system that promotes equality of access and achieves excellent results. This also generates widespread understanding of nutrition, and the egalitarian nature of the system seems to encourage community-based responses. Perhaps if we start thinking of health and education as being part of a continuum we can begin to tackle the health challenges of our time.

Frank Armstrong teaches an open access course in UCD on the Politics of Food.

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Frank Armstrong

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