By Ellie Chapman, Head of Food & Health, ShareAction
Covid-19 has been a health crisis of unprecedented scale.
Often taken for granted as a constant in our society, the UK’s NHS is being pushed to the brink.
And while the focus is on a second-wave of the virus and the day-to-day struggle to contain it continues, there is also a wider conversation to be had.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the health of society
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital importance of a healthy society.
Those with underlying health conditions – many of them preventable – are more at risk.
Many of these preventable conditions are fuelled by obesity, such as heart-disease and type 2 diabetes.
In the UK over 70 per cent of all intensive care patients with the virus are overweight or obese, and obesity has been shown to raise the risk of death from Covid-19 by 33 per cent.
This has both immediate and long-term implications.
Poor diets are one of the largest causes of ill-health globally – and the food options available to us are often determined by our environment.
For too long high-sugar, high-fat and processed foods have been in the spotlight, fuelling an obesity crisis. Unhealthy options are heavily marketed, and supermarket promotions centre around them. Families are often left unable to afford – or even find – healthy alternatives.
Food and drink retailers and manufacturers play a huge role in this trend. Supermarkets dominate food sales and increasingly the production of it too, with some 51% of the grocery market comprised of supermarkets’ own brand products. At the same time, food and drink manufacturers operate in a highly concentrated market with an over-reliance on unhealthy products.
Increasing risk of regulation
The role that supermarkets and food manufacturers play in shaping our diets has not gone unnoticed.
In the wake of the pandemic, the UK Government announced a swathe of new measures, targeting the promotion and sale of unhealthy foods.
The announcement will see ‘buy one get one free’ deals on unhealthy foods banned, restrictions introduced on where unhealthy foods can be promoted in stores, and an end of junk food adverts before 9pm.
Added to existing interventions – such as the sugar levy on soft drinks and a ban on sales of energy drinks to children –the new measures represent a massive shift in the way the food and drinks industry does business.
And this will continue way after Covid-19 has ended.
Rebuilding a resilient society
We know that when it comes to health, prevention is better than cure. By reducing the burden of preventable diseases, many of which are fuelled by unhealthy diets, we will not only work to protect our society against future unseen shocks, but our NHS too.
It is often the poorest in our society – those facing low wages, and precarious working conditions – that are most at risk from rising obesity. These are also the groups that will be hardest hit from the economic fall-out of this pandemic. As we look to rebuild, food retailers and manufacturers – and those that invest in them – must prioritize health and support everyone to access healthy and affordable food.
In doing so, we will be making a society that is more resilient to public health issues in the future.
The role of investors
Covid-19 shows the significant systemic threat of public health issues.
We are only beginning to touch the sides of the economic fall-out of this pandemic, and the decisions made now to address the on-going challenges will have impact for years to come.
While first priority continues to be protection – in slowing the spread of the disease and ensuring workers are shielded from its health and economic impacts – looking past this pandemic there are important lessons for investors.
Public health needs to be taken seriously within Environment, Social and Governance principles. It needs to be incorporated into responsible investment.
Our diets are central to our health – they are good place to start.
In the UK, two in every three pounds spent on food to be eaten in the home goes to supermarkets. It has never been more important for them to prioritise the health of society, yet we still have little understanding of just how they are doing this.
Investors must continue to work with food retailers and manufacturers, both through and beyond this crisis to raise the prominence of health, and ensure they work to support healthier diets and societies.