10th Dec 2023


Obesity linked to agricultural policy, new studies say

  • "Food systems are making us sick," explained Cecilia Rocha, the leading author of the report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). (Photo: Pixabay)

The number of obese children and adolescents - aged five to 19 years - worldwide has risen tenfold in the past four decades, according to new research published by the World Health Organization (WHO).

On World Obesity Day (11 October), the findings are a timely reminder that action to tackle obesity needs to be swift, progressive and effective.

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  • The end of EU sugar production quotas have health campaigners worried that the market could be flooded with cheap sugar, undermining any efforts to reduce consumption. (Photo: Pixabay)

Health campaigners are advocating for new policies to curb this epidemic - from sugar taxes on soft drinks and regulations to restrict advertising junk food to children, to initiatives that will get Europeans off their sofas and outside.

"These worrying trends reflect the impact of food marketing and policies across the globe, with healthy nutritious foods too expensive for poor families and communities," said the report's author, professor Majid Ezzati, from Imperial College London.

Food systems are making us sick

The WHO's report advocates "promoting the intake of healthy foods" and restricting unhealthy ones. That's vitally important but it's only half the story - the most ambitious new health policies, backed by the likes of WHO, may be pointless if Europe's agricultural policies remain focused on high-yielding cereal crops using chemicals and factory farming.

"Food systems are making us sick," explained Cecilia Rocha this week as she launched a new report detailing the "staggering" health cost of industrial food and farming.

"Unhealthy diets are the most obvious link, but are only one of many pathways through which food and farming systems affect human health."

Rocha has just written a report for the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), a Brussels think tank comprised of experts in the field of sustainable food.

Launched at this week's UN Committee on World Food Security in Rome, Rocha's research paints an ugly picture.

"Many of the most severe health impacts - from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers and systemic livelihood stresses - are linked to industrial food and farming practices," Rocha writes.

"The health impacts generated by food systems are severe, widespread and closely linked to industrial food and farming practices."

Up and down the food chain, there are major trends at odds with healthy, sustainable diets.

The arable sector, for instance, heavily relies on intensive chemical use and factory farms designed to squeeze maximum profit out of every last square centimetre of land. Whereas further up the chain comes "mass production and mass marketing of ultra processed foods and the development of long and deregulated global commodity supply chains".

While unpicking our food systems, as Rocha and her team have done, it becomes clear that a healthy initiative here, or a sugar tax there, will be useless when it comes to tackling obesity.

Campaigners in Europe have claimed agriculture ministers "don't give a damn" about health, pointing to the recent removal of EU quotas on sugar as a case in point.

But obesity is only one of a number of conditions and health issues costing billions every year. Lower-dose, chronic exposure to many pesticides, particularly endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC), has been "clearly-linked to a number of long-term health effects", IPES-Food noted.

The panel estimates an annual health cost of $217 billion (€183.5 million) in the EU due to EDC exposure.

"The health impacts associated with food systems are highly diverse in terms of where they originate, what types of health conditions they are associated with, and who is affected," the new report reads.

"However, the full picture is often lost from view, allowing the connections to be obscured and the root causes of poor health to be left unaddressed."

Scrapping subsidies for unhealthy foods

Obesity is a case in point: discussion of the issue is commonly linked to lifestyle and physical exercise, but how often are the dots joined all the way back to the foods that are produced? This is the €1.8 trillion question - and it's one that is being asked more frequently, and in recent weeks, more loudly.

A report by the World Bank - published but quietly publicised in August - suggested that subsidies and other price support mechanisms for unhealthy ingredients should be scrapped. Fruits, vegetables and legumes should be supported, at the expense of cereals, palm oil and sugar, experts noted.

It also suggests that research needed to focus on healthier crops.

That would represent a major shift in thinking - Europe's farmers have ploughed a steady furrow for decades, with the success of agricultural policies and systems almost always based on metrics of crop yields, economic output and cost-benefit ratios.

It is hardly surprising, then, that reliance on pesticides and, in some countries, genetically modified crops has come at the expense of 'sustainable' or organic production.

On Tuesday (10 October), a new report adopted by the European Commission concluded that the implementation of the EU directive on Sustainable Use of Pesticides is "insufficient".

And, on Wednesday (11 October), there is a European Parliament hearing on the licensing of glyphosate. Over a million people have signed a petition calling for the controversial herbicide to be banned.

Industry and farmers are fighting any thoughts of an outright ban - and when the farming lobbies or agrochemical industry say jump, campaigners claim the commission's response tends to be 'How high?'.

The result is that the bar on safety, security and sustainability is set far too low - and the findings in the IPES-Food report reflect these concerns.

"The industrial food and farming model that systematically generates negative health impacts also generates highly unequal power relations," said Rocha.

She adds that: "Powerful actors are therefore able to shape our understanding of food-health linkages, promoting solutions that leave the root causes of ill health unaddressed." This is why campaigners and a million citizens are so concerned about the proposed mega-merger between Monsanto and Bayer.

The IPES-Food co-chair and former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said the grounds for reform of food and systems are "compelling".

"When health impacts are placed alongside social and environmental impacts, and the mounting costs they generate, the case for action is overwhelming. It is now clearer than ever that healthy people and a healthy planet are co-dependent," he added.

Agriculture ministers 'don't give a damn'

But integrating nutrition policy with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) won't be easy.

Take a look at the "Common Agricultural Policy at a glance" page on the European Commission's website and there is mention of "stable supply", environmental protection and animal welfare standards, but nothing on nutrition or health. This is because food safety is perceived as an EU competency, but when it comes to nutrition-related health, the lines become blurred.

An article published in the journal Food Policy last year begged the question: How much priority is given to nutrition and health in the EU Common Agricultural Policy?

"Aligning agricultural policy such as CAP with nutrition is complex," the researchers from the UK and Australia noted.

"Not least because the aims of agricultural policy are predominantly economic, presenting a challenge for developing coherence between agricultural trade and health policy."

In some cases, agricultural and health polices appear not just poorly aligned but completely contradictory. Earlier this month, EU production quotas on sugar were removed. It's unclear whether this will see prices nosedive or not, but some forecasters have predicted that EU white sugar production will rocket upwards by 31 percent between 2016 and 2021.

Health campaigners have long voiced fears that the market could be flooded with cheap sugar, undermining any efforts to reduce consumption.

As Tam Fry from the UK's National Obesity Forum summed it up last year: "Europe's health ministers didn't get the better of the agriculture ministers [and the latter] don't give a damn about health."

But it's not just sugar production policies that are at cross-purposes with the health agenda.

In September, the European Heart Network (EHN) published a new report showing the benefits of shifting towards diets with more plants and fewer livestock products, like meat and full-fat dairy.

EHN called for a "radical rethinking" of the "market-focused" CAP, which the Brussels-based alliance claimed has helped shape current dietary patterns. Susanne Loegstrup, director of EHN, told EUobserver that, so far, there has been "little appetite among our politicians" to implement policies on diet.

Interviews with agricultural, trade and health policymakers listed in the Food Policy paper mentioned above, offer some insight as to why. The experts discovered that because of the treaties relevant to CAP, nutrition is seen as something for member states to decide.

As one interviewee put it: "That's where people in [DG SANTE] always say 'yeah, but there's a [very serious] limitation … because the people who can make change in terms of health and health regulations - that's national states'."

Still, "some respondents were of the view that if the will is there, nutrition can be legally justified as an issue to be addressed by CAP", the researchers noted.

The World Bank weighs in

With every major new report, new seeds are planted. The one just produced by IPES-Food is comprehensive, while EHN's merits a wider hearing.

The World Bank's findings are perhaps the most significant, however.

CAP's focus on economics seems to be the major sticking point, so the bank weighing in on the issue marks an intriguing shift.

"It is the World Bank," explained Lawrence Haddad, executive director at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain). "Love them or not, they matter. If they say we need to pay more attention to how food systems can mitigate obesity, others will pay attention. They reach constituencies that [others, including the World Health Organization and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization] cannot."

The bank's findings are "an important signal to those inside and outside the World Bank that obesity is not off the table, and that some of the Bank's investments in agriculture and food systems could be doing more to mitigate it and may even be inadvertently contributing to it", said Haddad.

What's more, the authors are realistic about evidence; the fact that there is not nearly enough does not mean nothing can or should be done. That's "refreshing", said Haddad.

Rocha came to a similar conclusion: "The complexity of health impacts in food systems is real and challenging, but should not be an excuse for inaction."


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