The politics of food: GST?

I had a few days off from thinking about the politics of food but it does seem to catch up with me with lightning speed and here I am again. When I heard about the Labour Party's proposed policy to remove the GST on fresh fruit and vegetables earlier this week, my first thought was about compliance costs. On my next blog surf I noted similar concerns from Homepaddock. Only Homepaddock goes further (I like her writing but I tend to be opposed to her politics) and quotes Bill English's attack on the proposed policy. Here is the original link with English's comments. I link to that because in it are some figures which don't make logical sense to me.

Quote no.1: The $250 million annual cost of the move, divided among all New Zealanders, is worth, on average, just over $1 a week - less for low income earners and more for high income earners.
This seems plausible from the outset, but the following does not fall into line with it:

Quote no.2: The Tax Working Group last year concluded that removing GST from food would make almost no difference to the distribution of tax across income levels, but would lose 20 per cent of GST revenue. This would have to be made up by increasing other taxes.

Initially, I couldn't work it out at all. If there was no GST on fresh food and vegetables and that saved a $1 per week on average, then if that was 20% of the GST take, then it would mean that people only spent $5 on GST per week, which doesn't seem plausible at all as an average figure.

But then I notice that we are not comparing apples with apples. Labour's policy is about removing the GST on fresh fruit and vegetables and Bill English is talking about removing it on all forms of food.

Red Alert also had a post on this proposed policy. Phil Goff has given these reasons:

  1. at 15%, GST is no longer a ‘low rate’ consumption tax. This regressive tax will now be at a level where it influences behaviour to the point where many people will be forced to make very difficult economic choices that have the potential to impact upon their health and well-being. We recognise this and want to ensure that fresh fruit and vegetables are affordable to all New Zealanders.
  2. NZ is now the 3rd fattest country in the world (behind US and Mexico). The cost to the tax payer and the health system of obesity-related disease is around $500m per year. It is time to do something about this.

Which begs an entirely new raft of questions. Firstly, I note from the quote above and the discussion in the Red Alert comments section that this is about relative pain and that is why no such thing was proposed by Labour when they introduced GST and when they raised it from 10% to 12.5%. This is a pragmatic issue, not an ideological issue (scale of GST pain vs any principle of not taxing food at source). No surprises there.

Secondly, FAT BASHING again. This is driving me nuts. As some one who was, according to BMI, obese a couple of months ago, I am confidently asserting that the numbers of people who measure 30 on the BMI index do not pose a grave concern to the health of this nation. I'm not qualified to know how high the BMI number would go before we are talking real difficulty in participating in society and markedly increased health risks. I know it is higher (possibly plenty higher) than a BMI of 30 and I recommend The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos for absolutely anyone who is interested in any aspect of this topic.

The OECD report which apparently asserted that New Zealanders are the third fattest nation in the world is not freely available to the public so I cannot interrogate the report's methodology, but I do wonder how they got these figures. I have never heard of OECD visiting a town and asking to weigh everyone and yet how else do you get representative figures? The growing trend of focusing on the weight of children is nasty. Not content with derailing the body image of all adult women, the diet indutry has set its sights on every breathing person. No one will be immune from their tentacles of oppression. The problem is not weight per se, but the destabilising effect of unrealistic body images and messages. Like vaccination, this industry has the arm of the state to do most of its work. How convenient. (Which reminds me of wondering about those politicians who support making student union membership voluntary and how many of them would ever apply the same principle to taxation and make that voluntary. Ah, no. Thought not.)

Moving my rant sideways to my next concern, I want to raise the issue of changing fashions and understandings and scientific developments (I use that term very loosely given the quality of much 'research') around what constitutes good food. Phil Goff wants us all to eat lots of fruit and vegetables. So far, so good. He wants us to do that because we are a nation of fatties. Hmm. So fruit and vegetables are our way out of fatness? Fruit and vegetables enjoy superior status for developing our bodies? I am a fan of fruit and vegetables myself and in no way wish to suggest that they are intrinsically bad, though it is an important consideration that they do not constitute a complete meal or diet.

My mother still remembers, with distaste, the warm milk which arrived at school and sat in the sun every day and which all children were made to drink. Milk no longer has goddess status these days, but it is the same phenomenon and I think this privileging of certain foods is definitely a problem. In recent years we have also had fat tax proposals (such as this one) and for all enthusiasts of Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions and the work of the Weston A Price Foundation more generally, a blanket fat tax would create problems not solve them.

As part of my passion for food which will enrich the health of myself and my family, I have read a pile of books. This year I have been particularly intrigued to look at the Paul Pitchford school of healthy eating (macrobiotic foods, with a strong leaning towards vegetarian and vegan foods) and compare it with the Sally Fallon school of healthy eating (lots of animal fats, 'traditional' preparation techniques) and look at not just the differences (easy) but the similarities (broths, fermented condiments, nutritional power of vegetables). What comes out of my reading from every source?

Less sugar, less white flour, less processed food.

Hang on though, that's the stuff which big food business makes almost all of its money from.

Surely you can't touch that.

Watch the circling around the real issues. You won't see anyone suggest that we restructure food pricing and subsidies to make raw foods more affordable and also to incentivise fast food which employs real food ingredients as much as possible. I'm thinking more felafel and souvlakis and fewer McDonalds/KFC/fish 'n'chips made with batter of questionable origin and cooked in canola oil.


Anonymous said…
"I like her writing but I tend to be opposed to her politics"

I like your writing too. I may not agree with you on politics but I do have sympathy for your views on fat bashing.

Regardless of which figures are used, taking GST off fresh fruit and vgetables is silly policy.

Compliance costs would rise and be passed on to customers but the decrease in GST might not be.

The weather has a much bigger impact on the price of fresh fruit and vegetables than GST.
Thank you, Home Paddock.

I do have some sympathy for principle of keeping GST as simple as possible, given that abolishing GST altogether isn't on any parliamentary party's agenda. I can also see that Goff's proposed policy might very well not result in cheaper fruit and vegetables. There is no other edible commodity more vulnerable to weather-induced price change than fruit and vegetables.

I am still thinking about what exactly an effective intervention to make food more affordable would look like and it isn't obvious. Community gardens, allotments for the city and food growing lessons are all options which have a lovely ring to them, but are unlikely to reach the dinner plates of our most vulnerable New Zealand children. At the moment, I'm continuing to give to the local food bank in the absence of a better idea.
Anonymous said…
I too have been wondering why a 'healthy' BMI has been dropping - it's definitely a movable feast like 'normal' IQ. However a lot of my current research into bone growth, joint health, and injury rehab suggests that this is an area where body weight is critical. Though people can be very healthy with a 'high' BMI and a 'large' dress size, if they have a joint/bone injury or surgery like a hip replacement their rehab is likely to be longer and chances of full recovery less due to the additional stress on the weakened area. I do wonder whether factors like the prevalence of hip and knee replacements is driving down 'normal' BMI - it's not so much about the health of the person at any given time; but their ability to cope with future medical challenges.
Interesting Missjoestar. You wouldn't really know this from the focus on type 2 diabetes. Can you post or send me some of any links from your reading? I'd be interested from the perspective of bone health. Have you seen this material?:

Looking forward to seeing you in October.

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