Global food system an international "public health disaster" ? UN food expert

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 12 Mar 2012 18:07 GMT
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LONDON (AlertNet) - The global food system is making people sick in rich and in poor countries and billions are suffering from the "hidden hunger" of a diet without sufficient nutrients, the United Nations’ expert on food has said.

Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, called for a range of tough measures to overhaul the system, including taxing unhealthy products, and to tackle what he called an international “public health disaster”.

“Faced with this public health crisis, we continue to prescribe medical remedies: nutrition pills and early-life nutrition strategies for those lacking in calories; slimming pills, lifestyle advice and calorie counting for the overweight,” De Schutter said.

“But we must tackle the systemic problems that generate poor nutrition in all its form,” he noted in a statement published as he presented his latest report to the U.N. Human Rights Council last week.

Policies pursued after World War Two have focused on the production of cheap calories over quality foods, resulting in a dysfunctional food system that serves neither affluent nor developing countries, he argued.

“Governments have been focusing on increasing calorie availability, but they have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are on offer, at what price, to whom they are accessible, “ De Schutter said.

“Urbanisation, supermarketisation and the global spread of modern lifestyles have shaken up traditional food habits. The result is a public health disaster.”

De Schutter identified five priority areas to focus on for placing nutrition at the heart of the food systems in the developed and developing world:

* Taxing unhealthy products

* Regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar

* Cracking down on junk food advertising

* Overhauling misguided agricultural subsidies in the European Union and United States  that make commodity crops that form the basis of junk food diets cheap while leaving healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables expensive

* Supporting local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods and farmers earn a decent living

He pointed out that, for example, in 2010 U.S. companies spent $8.5 billion advertising food, candy and non-alcoholic beverages, while $44 million was budgeted for the U.S. government’s primary healthy eating programme.

He has previously highlighted how the global food system, dominated by a small number of transnational agrifood companies, marginalises farmers in developing countries and threatens food security

But it was the first time he produced a full report on the burden of disease that the system places on Western societies and the fact that diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are now being “exported” to developing nations.

The U.N. expert also identified the abundance of processed food as a major threat to improving nutrition as those foods lead to diets richer in saturated and trans-fatty acids, salts and sugars.

More than 1.3 billion people are overweight or obese, while one in seven people are undernourished and many more suffer from a lack of micronutrients. A recent report by charity Save the Children showed that one in four children are stunted, with the figure as high as one in three in developing countries, meaning their body and brain failed to develop properly because of malnutrition.

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)