Yes, let’s feed the world – but with healthy food from healthy farms


By: Joan Baxter

Despite all the problems there are with Band Aid 30’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas, few would take issue with the noble sentiment of the stirring chorus line near the end of the song that exhorts us to “feed the world”.

Just as I’m left wondering where, exactly, the funds raised by Bob Geldof’s charitable efforts will go “to fight the Ebola crisis” in West Africa, I am also curious about what, exactly, they are thinking the world should be fed with.

I’m not just being ornery; this is an important question.

We live on a planet that is plagued by hunger and periodic famine, caused increasingly by climate change, conflict, politics, perverse policies and poverty. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), close to a tenth of the world’s population does not have enough food to lead a healthy active life.

At the same time, there is also a good deal of excessive consumption of calories that has led to another kind of global health crisis.

A global epidemic … that dwarfs Ebola

Globally, more people are now lugging around too much fat on their frames than are people carrying around too little. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 1980 and 2008, the worldwide obesity rate nearly doubled. By 2013, about 42 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese, defined as “ abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health”.

A discussion paper on the economic costs of obesity from the McKinsey Global Institute calls it “a critical global issue” that requires “a comprehensive, international intervention strategy”. More than 2.1 billion of us – almost a third of the global population – are now overweight or obese.

“That’s almost two and a half times the number of adults and children who are undernourished,” says the report. “Obesity is responsible for about 5 percent of all deaths a year worldwide, and its global economic impact amounts to roughly USD 2 trillion annually, or 2.8 percent of global GDP – nearly equivalent to the global impact of smoking or of armed violence, war, and terrorism.”

More than 2.1 billion of us – almost a third of the global population – are now overweight or obese.

And the problem is rapidly getting worse, according to the McKinsey report. “If the prevalence of obesity continues on its current trajectory, almost half of the world’s adult population will be overweight or obese by 2030.”

More deaths worldwide are now linked to excess weight and obesity than to being underweight. According to the WHO, “Around 3.4 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. In addition, 44% of the diabetes burden, 23% of the ischaemic heart disease burden and between 7% and 41% of certain cancer burdens are attributable to overweight and obesity.”

This is no longer a problem found primarily in the rich world; the rate at which childhood overweight and obesity has been rising in developing countries is more than 30% higher than it is in industrialized ones.

A “double whammy” for Africa

Not that hunger and undernourishment are not still problems. According to the World Food Program, the majority of the world’s hungry are not in Africa. Two-thirds of the word’s hungry people, who number about 805 million, are in Asia. Over 40 percent of the people in the world who don’t have enough to eat live in India (home to the much-touted Green Revolution) and China, two nations often feted as emerging economic superpowers, and home to a burgeoning number of billionaires and gaping, bewildering economic and social disparities.

While the actual percentage of the population that is undernourished remains highest in Africa, at close to 25%, the continent is now facing a “double whammy”, trying to cope with problems of both under- and over-nutrition that are the worst in the world.

Africa hardly needs this obesity epidemic on top of all the other health issues it faces, but that is precisely what it’s getting. Between one fifth and one half of urban Africans are estimated to be overweight or obese. A study of nutritional status of women in urban areas of seven African countries, some known more for hunger and famine than for excessive caloric intake and weight, such as Burkina Faso and Niger, revealed an alarming trend.

Between 1993 and 2003, the prevalence of urban overweight/obesity increased by nearly 35 percent, and the rate of increase was much higher among the poorest, where it rose by 50 percent, than among the richest, where it rose by just seven percent. Women who had either attended only primary grades or had no formal schooling at all were the ones most likely to become overweight or obese, which in turn increases risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

A big fat problem

So, we have a big fat problem and it’s killing us all over the world. But what’s causing it? Why are so many of us suffering from the energy imbalance that means we take in more calories than we expend?

Well, many things, including sedentary lifestyles, sitting in front of computers (as I am doing now) instead of being out there doing manual labour on a farm to grow my own food or walking to market to buy food. Urbanization and changing modes of transportation also contribute to the epidemic. Cities in the developing world tend not to bother with pedestrian walkways or bicycle paths, or the public infrastructure that would promote physical activity among their citizens.

So, we have a big fat problem and it’s killing us all over the world.

But topping the list of causes for the obesity epidemic are the kinds of food we are now eating. Increasingly, as corporations – Big Agriculture, Big Agrochemical, Big Seed, Big Fertilizer and Big Food – take control of our food system, our diets have been changing. We are eating far too many industrially-produced fast foods – or as food writer Michael Pollan calls them, “edible food-like substances”. These tend to be high-calorie, processed foods full of fats, sugar and salt, and not nearly enough healthy, natural foods grown on diverse, agro-ecological farms.

Delicious and nutritious cuisine in West Africa did not involve processed foods.

Delicious and nutritious cuisine in West Africa did not involve processed foods.

Despite rampant poverty in cities, the urban poor – be they in Ouagadougou or Oklahoma, Johannesburg or Jakarta – have more access to cheap processed foods with high contents of fat and sugar than do their rural cousins, whose diets are more traditional, consisting mostly of fresh vegetables and fruits, tubers, cereals and grains. Traditional diets do not an obesity epidemic create, nor are you likely to find a family farmer in Africa or Asia who is obese. With modernization and urbanization in Africa, nutritionally superior traditional and indigenous foods are rapidly being replaced by modern processed foods.

Maggi cubes are now being used in many dishes in Africa

Maggi cubes are now being used in many dishes in Africa

Maggi cubes, margarine and mayonnaise have invaded Africa’s kitchens and cuisines, become standard ingredients in many dishes and meals, enhancing flavour but adding little in the way of nutrition in the case of Maggi, and adding lots of calories in the case of the industrial-grade fats.

The changing dietary habits bring not just obesity but also other health problems. In Uganda, for example, among teenage girls anaemia is increasing because of a lack of iron in diets, and mothers are choosing to give their babies powdered milk rather than breast-feeding them, influenced by advertising that is driving the dramatic dietary changes on the continent. Throughout Africa, billboards and television hammer home messages that sugary and caffeine-laden breakfast beverages, “energy” drinks and a host of processed alternatives or additions to traditional staples are modern, healthy and somehow better than the real foods and healthier choices of yesterday – misleading and often downright false messages that go unchallenged.

Billboard promoting energy drinks in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Billboard promoting energy drinks in Freetown, Sierra Leone

As Michael Pollan says, we’ve known for almost a century that an industrial diet of fast and processed foods makes people sick and fat. But for some reason – perhaps powerful lobbying by the food and fast food industries – the processed food business has gone from merely huge to bloated, much like the people it feeds, force-feeding the globe with its advertising and its adulterated victuals. And now Africa is suffering at both ends of the dietary scale – suffering under-nourishment and hunger from lack of food, and obesity brought on by over-consumption of processed foods.

Youth in the United States are predicted to have shorter and less healthy lives than their parents, largely because of the obesity epidemic. And the obesity epidemic, in turn, is caused by a food system that seeks not to nourish the world with healthy foods but to maximize its profits feeding people whatever it is cheapest to produce and easiest to push on an unsuspecting public.

The gluttony is corporate

At a recent United Nations conference on nutrition, Pope Francis joined the chorus of voices calling for a more equitable, healthy and sustainable food system, saying it is “painful to see that the struggle against hunger and malnutrition is hindered by market priorities, the primacy of profit, which have reduced foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation, also of a financial nature.” He condemned the injustice of the global food system, which we called, “the ‘paradox of plenty’, where enough food is produced globally for everyone but not everyone can eat.”

The solutions for a healthier, better-nourished planet are there. They include more social and economic equity, agro-ecological farming and policies to encourage it, and healthier diets with less processed food laced with fat, sugar and salt, responsible marketing and other measures to tackle obesity, such as labeling foods, changing food product formulas, and healthier food choices at schools and workplaces.

So, yes, let us “feed the world”. But not with more of the same industrial agriculture and so-called “modern” food production that makes us fat, harms our health and the environment, and accelerates climate change, but with healthy food produced by a healthy food system that starts on diverse, healthy farms in a healthy environment in a more equitable world.

That would be something to sing about.

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