Processed food is a global health crisis

Judy Bankman calls for action on links between ‘Big Food’, climate change and poor health.

McDonald's in India
McDonald's in India. The western diet is taking a toll on the health of the people in the Global South. Image: Takehiko Ono, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One of the most potentially far-reaching agreements at the UN’s COP23 summit on climate change in Bonn was the decision to link farming methods to climate change, and to explore a framework of solutions.

It was a “notable, yet low-profile outcome”, according to Carbon Brief. The international community agreed to work on the links between agriculture and climate change, and to agree which issues should be included by March 31, 2018. Future technical talks on the two issues will take account of each strand.

The decision is not just a huge step towards tackling greenhouse gas emissions from farming. It also offers hope for future breakthroughs in sustainable diet, because poor diet and environmentally damaging agriculture are linked, as a new paper from New York based policy thinktank Brighter Green shows.

Released at COP23, “Chronic Disease, Changing Diets, & Sustainability: The Globalization of Western-style Eating & Its Implications” sheds light on the intersection of diet, public health, and environmental sustainability, with case studies from China, South Africa, India, Mexico and Brazil.

Bad for planet and people

“The ‘Western-style diet’ – replete with salt, sugar, cheap vegetable oil, and animal fat – is inextricably linked to the fast-rising increase in non-communicable diseases (NCDs)” in low and middle income countries,” it says.

Dietary changes are taking place at “unprecedented speed,” and people in emerging economies such as South Africa, Brazil, and Mexico are suffering a rise in what used to be “diseases of the rich” – diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancers.

As incomes rise, consumers in low and middle income countries are increasingly eating diets similar to those of consumers from the United States, in a “nutritional transition” from plant-based to meat-centric, sugar-rich diets.

Obesity has doubled worldwide since 1980. By 2014 roughly 13 per cent of the global population was obese, roughly 600 million adults and 100 million children. Nearly 39 per cent of everyone on the planet was overweight. Obesity puts people at greater risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Diabetes-related deaths rose from 1.9 per cent in 2000 to 2.7 per cent in 2012, and CVD is the biggest single cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

China’s diabetes epidemic

China, where meat consumption has risen 400 per cent since 1980, now has the most diabetics in the world: 109 million people in 2015. Diabetes is a risk factor for CVD, and CVD accounts for 38 per cent of deaths.

China currently consumes 28 per cent of the world’s meat, or 63 kilogrammes per person per year, half the meat consumption of an average American. In June, it opened its doors to American beef for the first time in 14 years to meet its growing demand.

Cultural allure

Many in the Global South associate American-style fast food with modernity and inclusion in a global culture.

“Big Food”, meaning large transnational food companies like McDonald’s and Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC and Taco Bell, are concentrating their efforts on emerging economies.

Big Food tends to seek out new markets once processed foods provide 60 per cent of a country’s total calories, according to Carlos Monteiro, director of University of Sao Paolo’s Centre for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition. The US, UK, and Canada reached this level several decades ago.

Global fast food giants advertise heavily in their Global South markets and often adapt their menus to local tastes (e.g. the “McPaneer Royale” in India), the report says.

China’s market is an important target for Big Food. In 2011, Yum! Brands, KFC’s parent company, reported half of its US$1.8 billion profit came from them. KFC has opened over 4,200 new Chinese locations in 26 years, while rival McDonald’s has opened new restaurants at the rate of 10 a week. Fast food’s associations with success have made burgers a popular treat.

Migration from rural to urban environments is one factor that enables increased access to fast food and processed food. In 2014, 54 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, compared to 30 per cent in 1950.

Growing problems  

The report details how the agricultural needs of Big Food contribute to global warming, through increased production of meat production and feed for livestock. Vast tracts of land turned over to livestock, corn and soybeans have led to massive soil erosion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions, it says.

Agriculture (including transport and packaging) contributes from 20 per cent to 30 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHG); the global livestock industry produces 14.5 per cent of all GHGs. Methane from livestock is less abundant than CO2 overall, but has a stronger greenhouse effect.

Palm oil, found in many products from snacks to toiletries, is a particularly worrying example as the trees thrive on peat-rich soil. Far more CO2 is released in planting them than is sequestered in the canopy, as the Union of Concerned Scientists warned in a 2013 paper ‘Palm Oil and the Environment.’ The nutrition transition is harming both people and the environment, the report says.

Double burden

While newly urbanised consumers are eating richer diets, those who remain in rural areas often suffer nutritional deprivation from scarcity.

For instance, in rural China, increased specialisation of food production, while perhaps economically advantageous overall, has led to greater food insecurity. As diets and lifestyle change rapidly, malnutrition can occasionally coexist with overnutrition within a household, or even within an individual’s lifetime. This curious phenomenon is referred to as the double burden of malnutrition.

The report also outlines moves being taken to tackle chronic diseases.

Positive steps

In June 2016, the Chinese Nutrition Society released new dietary guidelines suggesting meat consumption per capita needs to be halved. This bold suggestion, if followed, could help improve Chinese diets and also reduce the amount of GHGs released from food production and consumption.

In August, the international conservation network, WildAid, launched Shu Shi: a celebrity endorsed media campaign to fight climate change and improve the public’s health.

As incomes rise, consumers in low and middle income countries are increasingly eating diets similar to those of consumers from the United States, in a “nutritional transition” from plant-based to meat-centric, sugar-rich diets.

Other countries studied in the report are also taking steps to use the law and public health education. Mexico passed a 2010 law for schools that requires sports and restricts the sale of unhealthy food. Obesity there is strongly linked to sugary drinks, and is commoner closer to the US border. South Africa has limited the salt quantities in some foods by law, and a Green Monday’s campaign encourages eating vegetables. Brazilian campaigns stress home cooking with fresh ingredients.

Because of the increased burden of chronic disease in the Global South, health care systems must equip themselves to deal with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. In China, 13 per cent of medical costs are related to diabetes, and it is estimated that by 2030, yearly costs associated with diabetes will reach US$47 billion.

The situation calls for an accelerated discussion of the links between diet, health, and environment. The decision to address agriculture’s role in global warming at the recent UN climate talks will increase scrutiny of what we eat and why.

Judy Bankman is a former research intern and consultant at Brighter Green. Chronic disease, changing diets and sustainability – the globalization of Western-style eating and its implications, is researched and authored by Judy Bankman. It is published by Brighter Green.

This article is republished from

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