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Profit before nutrition makes you sick

The world’s food systems are “deeply dysfunctional” and society is paying an exorbitant price for a diet of processed food that ignores human beings’ real nutritional needs.

This is the damning conclusion in a new report from Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food.

For the past half century, food production has soared in quantity, whilst the quality of our diet has got worse. The twin curses of malnutrition and obesity have been actively promoted by subsidising grain, soya and meat production at the expense of fruit and vegetables.

Between 1961 and 2009, while fruit and vegetable production increased 332%, world oilseed production increased by 610% and meat production increased 372%. Over roughly the same period (1963–2003), developing countries increased the amount of calories they consume from meat (119%), sugar (127%) and vegetable oils (199%), and industrialised countries also increased vegetable oil consumption (105%).

Whilst emergency aid concentrates on getting calories and protein to people, in the long term what communities need is access to fresh fruit and vegetables that provide “micro-nutrition” essential for health. These can only be provided by good local food and farming infrastructure.

This is being actively undermined by governments that focus on big agriculture, cash crops for export, or even sell off land to foreign investors who will use it to grow more of the foods that are already making us sick.

About 34% of children in developing countries, 186 million children in total, have a low height for age, the most common symptom of chronic under nutrition.

Although food costs declined from the early 1960s until 2002, “the poorest are still too poor to feed themselves in dignity because agriculture has not been designed to support the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups”, the report states.

The export of the US diet to the rest of the world is causing a growing public health crisis. More than a billion people worldwide are overweight and at least 300 million are obese. Overweight and obesity cause 2.8 million premature deaths per year, and 65% of the world’s people live in a country where obesity kills more people than hunger.

Globally, diets have become increasingly energy-dense and rich in sugar, salt and saturated fats, as many higher fibre foods are replaced by heavily processed foods. This means that today‘s children could have shorter life expectancies than their parents.

This globalisation of the unhealthy “supermarketised” diet, which we have experienced very powerfully in free market Britain, is having a negative impact everywhere now. The report is very clear that we must urgently switch to a “sustainable diet”, defined as one which is:

The report concludes that the food system must turn away from an exclusive focus on boosting production and instead look towards “integrating the requirements of the adequacy of diets, social equity and environmental sustainability. All these components are essential to achieving durable success in combating hunger and malnutrition”.

De Schutter’s deeply researched report says that nutrition initiatives can be strengthened by “being integrated into broader national strategies for the realisation of the right to food”.

But this is the exact opposite of the current system which profits the corporations and is supported by their client governments, even with subsidies from taxpayers. Subsidies applied in the wrong place mean that a healthy diet is more expensive than a poor diet in many countries. Putting profit before nutrition is making us sick, leaving the healthcare system to deal with the consequences of corporate greed.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
23 March 2012

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Your Say

Fiona says:

Very much agree with the message here - however I would point out that despite what various 'politically correct' nutritionists, doctors, scientists and studies tell us, meat is actually very good for us, we have evolved to eat it after all. So is saturated fat in fact, it is the quality at least as much as the quantity of meat and other animal based food that is so often lacking owing to big ag. and intensive, inhumane methods. We cannot live by fruit and veg alone but it's the case too that plenty of us aren't eating enough of them. It is so true that putting 'profit before nutrition' is making so many of us, especially the poorest very ill indeed.

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