Leaders must take a hard line against powerful commercial interests and rethink global economic incentives within the food system in order to tackle the joint pandemics of obesity, undernutrition and climate change, according to a major new report by The Lancet Commission on Obesity.
A key recommendation from the Commission is the call to establish a new global treaty on food systems to limit the political influence of Big Food.
Malnutrition in all its forms, including undernutrition and obesity, is by far the biggest cause of ill-health and premature death globally. Both undernutrition and obesity are expected to be made significantly worse by climate change.
The report follows the publication of the Lancet-EAT Commission, which provided the first scientific targets for a healthy diet within planetary boundaries. Now, the new report analyses the wider systems underpinning the global obesity pandemic, and identifies solutions to address decades of policy failure.
Over the past two decades, obesity, undernutrition and climate change have been viewed as separate, and policy responses have been unacceptably slow due to reluctance of policy makers to implement effective policies, powerful opposition by vested commercial interests, and insufficient demand for change by the public and civil society.
Undernutrition is declining too slowly to meet global targets, no country has reversed its obesity epidemic, and comprehensive policy responses to the threat of climate change have barely begun.
“Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories. In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth, and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes. Climate change has the same story of profits and power ignoring the environmental damage caused by current food systems, transportation, urban design and land use. Joining the three pandemics together as The Global Syndemic allows us to consider common drivers and shared solutions, with the aim of breaking decades of policy inertia,” says Commission co-chair, Professor Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland.
The new Commission defines The Global Syndemic as the global interactions of the pandemics of obesity, undernutrition and climate change, which are linked through common drivers and shared solutions.
Driving The Global Syndemic are food and agriculture policies, transportation, urban design and land use systems — which in turn are driven by policies and economic incentives that promote overconsumption and inequalities.
Among the actions recommended, the Commission calls for the establishment of a Framework Convention on Food Systems (FCFS) — similar to global conventions for tobacco control and climate change — to restrict the influence of the food industry in policy making and to mobilise national action for healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems.
Economic incentives must be redesigned, and US$ 5 trillion in government subsidies to fossil fuel and large agricultural businesses globally should be redirected towards sustainable, healthy, environmentally friendly activities.
Additionally, a global philanthropic fund of US$1 billion must be set up to support civil society in advocating for change.