The diets of the future: will obesity conquer the whole world?


Obesity, the “mal du siècle,” is conquering both the developed and developing worlds. In a recent report, British think tank the Overseas Development Institute explores how changing diets affect public health issues and policies, and how they impact agriculture and, ultimately, our environment.


“Should the world go on a diet in 2014?” The Overseas Development Institute, an independent British think tank on international development and humanitarian issues, asks the question in a new report, “Future Diets. Implications for Agriculture and Food Prices,” published on 10 January.

The question is serious, and based on alarming evidence:

one third (34%) of adults in the world were overweight or obese in 2008, up from 23% in 1980.

The majority of these 1.64 billion people live in the developing world (904 million, vs 557 million in the developed world). Not only do more overweight or obese people live in lower-income countries, but their number tripled between 1980 and 2008, whereas in high-income countries the numbers increased by 1.7 times over the same period. These conclusions support, once more, the idea put forth by the UN a few years ago: that obesity is, in fact, a “hidden hunger.”

Why is that so? How and why do people become obese or overweight? What can be done to fight the spread of this and other non-communicable diseases (like diabetes, some cancers, cardiovascular disease, etc.)? What will the diets of the world look like in the future, and how will they impact agriculture and food prices? These are some of the questions addressed by the ODI’s report.


The mechanisms of obesity


A couple of years ago, we published an article explaining the mechanisms behind obesity’s spread in the developing world. It happens when a country undergoes a nutritional transition, i.e. when the standard of living rises and, as a consequence, the proportion of fat, sugar, salt and sweet products in the food intake does too, especially when food is imported from the developed world. But people’s bodies are not prepared for such a brutal change, and nor are their dietary habits.

New products flourish and create new dietary habits, but the intake of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients remains far from sufficient,

we wrote back then. The ODI writes in its report that in the least-developed countries, “diets fall short of the recommended levels of fruit, vegetables, dairy, fish, meat, etc.” In fact, we are faced with “a combination of the fastest acceleration in over-consumption and the greatest continuing toll of under-consumption” in these regions of the world. In its 2011 report “The State of Food Insecurity in the World”, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states that in 2008, around 240 million Africans and 560 million Asians were exposed to undernutrition – 850 million people in total, representing 13% of the world population. By 2015, even if we reach the Millennium Development Goals, there will still be 600 million chronically undernourished individuals. Obesity and undernutrition are two sides of the same coin: malnutrition.


Mushrooming obesity is not a fatality


But, based on what is happening in high-income countries, we can also consider obesity as a step towards healthy nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, a stage in the journey from undernutrition to a balanced diet. This does not mean that it is a fatality: nutritional transition does not have to be synonymous with over-consumption and continued malnutrition. The ODI observes that, in spite of the growing globalisation of diets, national and regional disparities are still very strong; they draw the conclusion that there is room for public policy to influence citizens towards healthier lifestyles. The report cites the example of South Korea where, in order to preserve the country’s traditional diet in the face of nutritional transition, the government launched public campaigns and provided education and training to teach women how to prepare traditional low-fat meals. As a result, the country consumed 300% more fruit and 10% more vegetables in 2009. Denmark took an even more radical decision when it banned trans-fatty acids in 2004, reducing the rate of heart disease in the country.

The ODI still notes that, in contrast with the significant state action taken to limit smoking, in high-income countries, “politicians are fearful of meddling with diets, and alienating farming and food-industry interests. (…) It seems that regulation and taxation are the most effective policies for diet, but these are precisely the policies that are least palatable to both the public and politicians.” As is the case for other development-related challenges – environmental issues, for instance – we can hope that developing countries will not replicate the mistakes post-industrialised countries have made, and that awareness of public health will rise faster there, subsequently inspiring efficient public policies (information campaigns, rules and restrictions, price incentives and income measures to make healthier foods affordable, etc.).


Future diets will also impact agriculture


The effect of diet on health was not the only concern addressed by the ODI. The reports also focused on the demands made by these changing diets on agriculture. But their findings were surprising. It is often thought that increased demand for meat pushes up meat prices, of course, but also the price of feed grains. In reality, while higher demand for feed grains will “put pressure on land, water and fertiliser supplies, drive up costs of agricultural production, and make it more difficult for those on low incomes to afford an adequate diet,” the price of grain will hardly be affected. The ODI draws the conclusion that “future diets may matter more for public health than for agriculture,” although they admit not having thoroughly investigated the environmental consequences of an increase in the world’s meat consumption. Agriculture, and meat production in particular, is the human activity that does the most damage to our environment, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion and water use. In the highest-income countries, concerns over the environment and animal welfare are already driving more and more people to reduce their meat consumption, if not become completely vegetarian. It would be crucial for this change of mindset to happen much faster in countries that are still transitioning. The ODI writes:

it will be easier to feed 8 billion people in 2030 and 9 billion in 2050 if diets are moderate rather than high in livestock consumption.

Aside from the single question of meat, it is obvious that changes in the diet of the world’s population will bring great challenges for agriculture (see our article on the subject, entitled “We need to start wondering how we will feed the planet in 2100, and beyond”). Public health issues will be more and more interlinked with environmental issues, and courageous public policies will be ever more vital. As the ODI concludes, “it is only a matter of time before people will accept and demand stronger and effective measures to influence diets. When that time comes, we will need the evidence on the main problems of emerging diets, and which policies will be most effective in addressing the emerging challenges.”

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