We now know the “best and worst places in the world to eat,” courtesy of Oxfam. The best is the Netherlands; the worst is Chad. (Here is an explanation of their analysis, and here is where you can explore their country-specific data if you’re so inclined.)
- enough to eat is based on rates of malnutrition;
- food affordability is based on food cost compared to other costs;
- food quality (whoa, talk about a can of worms) — Oxfam simply looked at diet diversity and availability of safe water;
- food health is based on rates of obesity and diabetes.
How did the Netherlands wind up on top? On average it was in the middle of the European pack on the first 3 measures: good on affordability, poor on enough to eat, in the middle on quality. But it squeeked out the win by being on top in food health.
I enjoy the Netherlands and I have eaten well there, but I’m pretty skeptical of any measure that puts the Dutch food scene in first place globally. But instead of me pretending to have insights into the Dutch food scene, here are some interesting comments from Dominic Glover — Netherlands resident and food/agriculture anthropologist (also my co-author in a brilliant recent article on GM crops and the recent food crisis):
Seeing the Netherlands at the top of the table surprises me. After six years living in Utrecht, my observation is that the Dutch diet is not especially healthy, being quite high in saturated fats (dairy, meat, and deep fried junk), salt, sugar, and carbohydrates (including beer, bread and potatoes).
I suspect that the reason the Dutch score better than most European countries for diabetes and obesity is not diet-related but exercise-related. The Dutch cycle a lot and sports facilities and clubs are everywhere. But those who choose not to cycle or otherwise take exercise seem to expand like balloons.
I’m also surprised by the good scores for affordability and quality, because Dutch supermarket food and ‘pub grub’ seem to me rather expensive by comparison with my home country (the UK). As for quality, the fruit and vegetables available in Dutch supermarkets tend to be exceedingly bland, having been selected for industrial processing and appearance rather than flavour or texture. The selection available at my local Albert Heijn is certainly no better than, say, Sainsbury, and interestingly there is no Dutch equivalent of upscale UK supermarket chains like Waitrose and M&S, or Wholefoods in the USA.
I wonder what Oxfam is trying to do with this report. By highlighting the Netherlands’ top score, Oxfam implies that the Dutch have got all the answers when it comes to food. But if Oxfam had taken food production systems into account, a different picture might have emerged. They would have had to reckon with the very high levels of energy consumption involved in Dutch horticultural production, for example, as well as the ugly animal welfare implications of the country’s extremely intensive livestock sector (which also depends on vast quantities of soybeans imported from South America).
What’s more interesting about the Oxfam report is the middle- and low-income countries that manage to score rather well on indicators such as child nutrition or food price stability. Instead of trying to emulate the Dutch, we might learn more from studying those countries.