The food we eat is increasingly part of a globalized and industrialized concentrated system. Four or five companies control thousands of brands. Poultry growers have one-sided contracts, pig and beef producers increasingly are forced to give up independence for contracts to produce in confined animal production units. Farmers are increasingly treated like serfs on their own land.
“Our food systems create sick people,” said Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. “The right to food means not only access to an adequate quantity of food, but also the ability to have a balanced and nutritious diet.”
Globalized food systems and the spread of Western lifestyles has spawned an international public health disaster with over a billion people suffering from undernourishment while another billion remain overweight or obese. Obesity rates are steadily increasing in almost all countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, where more than one in four children are already overweight or obese. In Australia, around two-thirds of adults are overweight. This has very serious health consequences for the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and cancers.
The main driver is changes to the food system, which has led to a population-wide over-consumption of calories. Our whole economy is focused on economic growth. Companies strive for continuous growth to satisfy shareholders. In the food system, the drive towards ever-increasing consumption has led to the oversupply of cheap, tasty, high-calorie foods that companies relentlessly push. Most of the excess calories we consume come from highly processed foods, such as soft drinks, and other unhealthy snack foods that have very little nutritional value. A less animal-based and more plant-based diet is associated with lower risks of heart disease.
“Urbanization, supermarketization, and the global spread of Western lifestyles have shaken up traditional food habits. The result is a public health disaster,” he said “Governments have been focusing on increasing calorie availability, but they have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are on offer, at what prices, to whom they are accessible, and how they are marketed.”
De Schutter pointed to the accessibility and abundance of highly-processed foods as a major factor in nutrition-related illnesses as they tend to be richer in saturated and trans-fatty acids, salt and sugars. As a result children frequently become addicted to the junk foods targeted at them. Also, it is the poorest population groups in wealthy countries that are most affected by processed foods, which are often more affordable than healthy diets.
“We have deferred to food companies the responsibility for ensuring that a good nutritional balance emerges. Voluntary guidelines and piecemeal nutrition initiatives have failed to create a system with the right signals, and the odds remain stacked against the achievement of a healthy, balanced diet,” said De Schutter.