Nowadays, as many as three Australians in every four die by their own hand - the one holding the fork. Diet-related diseases are clearly established as a major driver of sickness and premature mortality throughout the affluent world, and Australia is no exception.
According to new European research, 76 per cent of all deaths are linked to diet-related chronic diseases - such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity - and consume 77 per cent of all medical expenses. If these figures translate to Australia - and there is good reason to suspect they may be even worse here - then the cost of a poor diet to the national economy runs at about $120 billion a year, or 8 per cent of GDP, and contributes to the demise of about 95,000 Australians every year.
This makes our national diet significantly more deadly than smoking, drugs, motor cars, industrial accidents, firearms, depression or other more widely canvassed lethal factors. And way more costly. It is, in all likelihood, the number one killer of Australians and the most expensive activity we engage in.
Yet it is nearly impossible to turn on the TV or radio, walk down a street, enter a shop, open a magazine or surf the web without being inundated with advertising messages, promotions, cookery shows, celebrity chefs, cookbooks, supermarket discounts, fast food flyers and so on, all urging us to eat more, more, more - and die younger, younger, younger. Against this the National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health - $932 million over nine years, or 0.08 per cent of the annual cost of our dietary havoc - seems like a pittance.
There is a compounding aspect to this problem which has also been underestimated. Scientists around the world are linking man-made chemicals in the food chain, water and urban environment to a widening range of disorders, including autism, ADHD, obesity, diabetes, reproductive problems, cancers, heart disease, bowel disorders and conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
In other words people are not only becoming overweight because of pressure from food marketers and their own eating choices - but also because their body's ability to balance its energy management is being scrambled by up to 1500 different chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, many of which are now to be found in processed food, packaging, cosmetics, cleaning agents, furnishings, cars and so on. US Government research has found these substances in virtually the entire American population - and the situation is probably similar here.
About 38,000 man-made chemicals are approved for use in Australia and many tens of thousands of other substances are emitted by mining, energy production - coal and oil burning especially - urban waste disposal, use of chlorine, illegal drug making and so on. Every member of society is now immersed in a chemical bath 24/7 from food, water, air and dust, and nobody can yet say with any confidence what the health impact of these millions of chemical mixtures is. But you can bet it ain't good news.
Previous generations of humans never experienced toxic exposure, either in the diet or their living and working conditions, on such a massive scale. This is a relatively new development, with the doubling in world chemical and waste output over the past 25 years or so. Global chemical emissions will triple again by 2050, says the United National Environment Program. Most of the growth is occurring in countries where regulation is poor to non-existent - but whose products land constantly on our shores.
An increasing amount of the food Australians eat comes from these poorly regulated countries - because it is cheap, which is what the modern food chain demands. Random tests by scientists have found it to be significantly contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and endocrine disruptors - but there is little regular scrutiny of imported food. About one container of fresh fruit and veg in 20 is tested, for 50 chemicals (out of a
possible 10,000 known or suspected toxins and carcinogens).
About 80 per cent of heart disease cases, 80 per cent of type 2 diabetes cases and 40 per cent of cancers are preventable - but only if we cleanse both our diet and our living environment of the substances which trigger them. This doesn't just require an act of will on the part of consumers and parents - it also requires a genuine commitment by government to preventative healthcare and the full co-operation of the food and other industries.
If food is now implicated in about 95,000 Australian deaths a year, and smoking in 15,000 deaths, the question may seriously be posed whether the advertising and promotion of foods should be subject to similar restrictions as those governing tobacco. Plain packaging and advertising bans - especially on children's TV - might do the nation's health the world of good.
Of course many people, including especially the food industry, the supermarkets and most governments will fight this message. It is in their economic interests to do so - but not in ours, our kids or Australia's. However there is no reason why all of them - especially governments - should not endorse a healthy diet, containing a large proportion of fresh, Australian-grown produce, instead of the processed and chemicalised ''convenience'' diet of today, that is increasingly imported from heaven-knows-where.
Chemicals are used in the food chain to control pests, preserve food and add various attributes such as colour and flavour. But their main aim is to make food as cheap as possible. The fact that Europe has gotten rid of or banned three-quarters of its agricultural and food chemicals without any apparent ill-effect on the food supply or on prices, suggests they may not be as essential as some people claim. Australia, as a leading exporter of food should be a world leader in cleaning up its food chain, and moving to a much healthier, fresh diet in keeping with our climate, soils, water and health ethos. Not a contaminated also-ran.
"The contemporary world is experiencing a major food emergency," says Guido Barilla, whose international philanthropic foundation is hosting a global food and nutrition conference in Milan in November to address it.
Food activist Danielle Nierenberg argues: "The Western diet has taken over the world in the past 30 years - and the results have been disastrous. The bad health effects of this diet, high in refined sugars and fats and full of processed grains, have been observed worldwide."
Yet solutions abound: preventative healthcare, fresh fruit and vegetables, eating Australian-grown, avoiding processed and convenience foods, exercise, closer scrutiny of chemicals in our food and ourselves, stiffer barriers against contaminated imports, paying our farmers a bit more so they can produce cleaner, healthier food more sustainably.
Yes, the days of cheap food need to come to an end: it is a life and death issue. We can either spend a bit more at the farmers' market and supermarket - or at the hospital and hospice. Take your choice.
Julian Cribb is a Canberra science writer.