How the geography of world obesity has shifted
For the last few years, food scarcity and the effects of industrial food have co-existed, often within the same demographic circle and within countries. This is no contradiction (although it demands far more attentive food policy) because the in the world’s industrialised agriculture and processed food system, both must exist in order that profits are made, in order that ‘economic growth’ is fulfilled.
Now, the BBC has reported that the number of overweight and obese adults in the ‘developing world’ (an unnecessary hangover that label, which media organisations must outlaw) has almost quadrupled to around one billion since 1980. The BBC report is based on a study by Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, which has said that one in three people worldwide was now overweight – the study uses these findings to urge governments to do more to influence diets.
There has indeed been a dramatic increase in the numbers of overweight or obese people in the past 30 years, as anyone who has passed through public places is likely to have observed. Previously considered a problem in richer countries, the biggest rises are in what those familiar with ‘development economics’ (another term that means effectively nothing) call ‘middle income countries’ and the ‘developing world’.
The ODI study, called ‘Future Diets’, has traced how the changes in diet – more fat, more meat, more sugar and bigger portions (what the Americans loving call ‘supersize’) – have led to a health crisis. It also looks at how policy-makers have tried to curb these excesses, usually with little success.
The official line on the causes of obesity includes higher incomes. The rationale is that those households which earn more are now able to choose the kind of foods they want, and that they choose poorly. Changes in lifestyle are mentioned, as is the increasing availability of processed foods, the dreadful impact of advertising in and on every space discernible by our senses, and the co-option of media by the food industry (along with most other consumerist industries that require propaganda to ensure quarterly profit and expectations are met and that shareholder value is protected).
But this is the very alarming result. In what are also called ’emerging economies’, where a large middle class of people with rising incomes lives in urban centres and takes less physical exercise than their parents and grandparents did, there is “an explosion in overweight and obesity in the past 30 years” which of course will lead to serious implications for public health.
The consumption of fat, salt and sugar has increased globally according to the United Nations, and these increases are significant factors in the increase seen in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. The study has recommended more concerted public health measures from governments, similar to those taken to limit smoking in developed countries, but of course, to really bring about a change in the way new entrants into the urban middle classes eat, there must be the admission that economic ‘growth’ should first stop, then reverse. How likely is that in the next generation?