Experts call for influence of ‘big food’ to be curbed to also tackle issue of climate change
Sarah Boseley Health editor
The influence of “big food” must be curbed around the world if obesity, malnutrition and climate change are to be effectively tackled, according to a report.
Overconsumption of junk food and not having enough to eat are two sides of the malnutrition coin, said a commission of experts brought together by the Lancet medical journal. A third major global problem is interlinked – climate change that is worsened by food production, waste and transportation.
The commission said political leaders and civil society must step up to counter the commercial interests and lobbying of the food industry. It called for a UN treaty along the lines of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to support countries in drawing up sustainable and healthy food policies. As the FCTC does with the tobacco industry, the proposed treaty would ban food and drink companies from discussions.
The commission also recommended removing subsidies for agriculture and transport that contribute to poor diet and health. It proposed a $1bn (£760m) fund for civil society organisations that want to take on the food industry and press for sugar taxes and other measures to improve diets and counter obesity.
The experts cited the work of the Mexican NGO El Poder Del Consumidor, which successfully fought for taxes on soft drinks, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The food and drink industry has enormous power and the money to exert pressure on governments, said Tim Lobstein of the World Obesity Federation, one of the commissioners. In the US Congress, he pointed out, there are 294 lobbyists from food and drink companies, more than from either the tobacco or alcohol industries.
“Of that, two-thirds are former Congress staff, so they know what they are doing. That level of lobbying is devoted to preserving the status quo. It is a major barrier to change and must be challenged,” he said.
In the US and Australia, food industry pressure succeeded in keeping sustainability out of national dietary guidelines, the commission said. In the US, subsidies for fossil fuels keep petrol prices artificially low, encouraging car use rather than cycling, walking or taking public transport.
No country has succeeded in reversing its obesity epidemic, said the experts, who argued a broader attack is needed.
Prof Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland, the co-chair of the commission, said: “Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories.
“In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes.
“Climate change has the same story of profits and power ignoring the environmental damage caused by current food systems, transportation, urban design and land use.”
Echoing the “planetary health diet” devised by a commission convened by the Lancet and the Eat Forum NGO, the obesity commission said there could be extensive benefits to the planet if people ate less red meat.
As an example of the interconnection of obesity, malnutrition and climate change, the experts said reducing red meat consumption through taxes, redirected subsidies, health and environmental labelling, and social marketing would lead to healthier diets, prevention of cancer and obesity, more land for efficient, sustainable agriculture, opportunities to reduce undernutrition, and lower greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Sustainable food production is rising, said Lobstein. Changing the practices of large food companies, however, will not happen quickly.
Making the industry pay for plastic pollution could be one way to bring about change. From a survey by Ocean Conservancy, he calculated that 70% of the 10 most common types of plastic waste in seas is from food and drink. Food wrappers, plastic bottles, bottle tops and grocery bags are in the top five items found, after cigarette butts.
“All these things are interrelated,” Lobstein said. “There are compounds in plastics that are endocrine disruptors, which may be contributing to obesity. If plastics in the food chain are causing weight gain, we will need win-win solutions to improve the food supply while saving the planet.”
Fiona Sing of the World Cancer Research Fund said: “We support the implementation of a global treaty to limit the political influence of big food. How we produce and consume food is possibly the most important determinant of both human and environmental health worldwide.
“Obesity and undernutrition affect billions of people and are major drivers in diet-related non-communicable diseases, including cancer.”