A planet of fat poor

A planet of fat poor

By Gonzalo Fanjul

The trend is alarming. Between 1980 and 2008 the total number of people who are overweight or obese has grown by 890 million (from 571 to 1,461). But this problem has fallen much more heavily on the shoulders of poor countries (where it has multiplied by three) than on high-income countries (where it has increased by 70%). The average diet in China, for example, has not only grown from 852 to 2,109 grams per person per day, but its composition has varied notably: consumption of animal products has multiplied by 11, that of sugar by three and the vegetable for four. The pattern is repeated in large developing countries such as India, Thailand, Egypt or Peru.

The first problem is public health. The quantitative and qualitative evolution of these diets is directly related to the proliferation of so-called 'non-communicable diseases' such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases or cancer. The Economist recalled a few days ago that in 2012 57% of cancer diagnoses occurred in the developing world, where today there are two out of every three deaths derived from cancer diseases (more victims than those caused by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis together). When the open wound by the consequences of intellectual property rules on access to HIV-AIDS drugs has not yet been closed, the possibility of extending this conflict to non-communicable diseases is the nightmare of many. The right to health of the new poor requires treatments that, according to the current model of innovation and access to medicines, are simply unattainable.

The other perspective that the report addresses is that of the effects of this process on the evolution of agricultural demand and food prices. After all, it has been established among academics and politicians that the upward price crises of 2008 and 2011 were due both to the slow increase in demand in large emerging economies and to the pressure exerted by energy policies ( biofuel production) and the alteration of average production as a consequence of climate and natural disasters. Well, according to the research commissioned by the ODI to the experts of IFPRI (a world reference center in this field), the increase in the demand for products rich in fat will increase the world price of meat, but not necessarily the grain or other staple foods. The reason is that –even considering the evolution of the population- they foresee a transformation in the diet of high-income countries that will reduce meat consumption levels below even the current ones. A revolution similar to the one that has been achieved in the field of smoking.

The implications of each of the questions raised above are extraordinary. The increase in overweight and obesity among the poorest populations on the planet will force us to face complex political dilemmas that affect public health, the structure of agricultural markets and the capacity of institutions to influence both. And we will do so at the same time that we fight against food insecurity that at this moment determines the lives of nearly 850 million people. As the ODI report recalls, we have more than enough reason to reconsider consumption and production patterns in this broken food system.

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