It’s been a dirty (and surprising) little secret – smiled at by nutritionists, whispered about by policy-makers, fretted over by agricultural experts, and occasionally trumpeted by dramatic headlines – that, since 2004, both overall and in terms of related deaths, the world’s overweight have outnumbered the world’s underfed. Recent statistics class a staggering 66% of adult British men as overweight or obese, while both America and Scotland weigh in at 68%. Globally, the picture isn’t much better, with 61% of adult men qualifying as overweight or obese. Obesity has now become the leading preventable cause of death worldwide, with over 1.5 billion people overweight or obese, compared with a paltry 900 million who are undernourished.
And it’s not just in the developed world where such worrying trends are manifest; the developing world is fast catching up with the west in terms of unhealthy eating habits and overweight populations. Increasingly the combination of cheap, imported food, foreign ownership of agricultural land and the demands of emergent middle classes mean that diets the world over are changing. They are becoming loaded with concentrated sugars and saturated with oil.
However, the world is growing fatter in the midst of some very paradoxical trends. While the leading cause behind all the extra pounds is over-consumption, we live in an age where the price of food has climbed to its highest known levels, while the amount of land devoted to agriculture is on the decline notwithstanding a growing population. Moreover, despite the efforts made under the Millennium Development Goals to halve the number of undernourished people by 2015, figures show that undernourishment is on the rise. While climate change, resource depletion and a lack of developmental investment all play a role in the current woes surrounding the lack of food, much of the problem can be tied back to our own consumption habits. In other words, the burgeoning obesity crisis and the worsening scourge of malnutrition are closely tied together. It is estimated that the planet is currently capable of feeding 12 billion people, which raises some serious questions about the persistence of malnutrition in over 900 million.
The ideal diet varies from person to person, based on their build and lifestyle. Nonetheless, on average, a healthy adult male should typically consume 2200 to 2500 calories per day, while a healthy adult female should consume between 1850 to 2050. However, an international study conducted by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reveals that the average consumption in many developed nations is much higher. In the UK, the average caloric intake in 2005 was 3,426, while the average American ate 3,826 calories worth of food per day. Even nations which are still undergoing development, such as China or Romania, display marked trends of overconsumption, with average intakes of 2,940 calories and 3,474 calories respectively.
That all these extra calories are behind the global obesity crisis there can be no doubt. One pound of fat contains about 3500 calories; when our bodies don’t convert our excess energy to fat, much of it ends up stored around our bellies. Indeed, it is estimated that – without any efforts to burn it off – the average American caloric intake would result in a weight increase of approximately 14 pounds each year.
But where do all these extra calories come from? The three big culprits are processed sugars, oils and the fats in meat. Our bodies tend to notice the volume and nutritional value of the food we’re eating, but not necessarily the raw calories. That means that we will crave the same quantity of food whether it’s part of a healthy, balanced diet, or it’s packed full of concentrated sugars and unhealthy fats.
However, all three of these substances not only take a serious toll on the lives of the overweight, but also on those who struggle everyday for food. While most crops provide more energy than it takes to grow them, the same can not be said for meat. Beef, for example, uses around 20 calories of energy, mostly in the form of feed, to produce one calorie of food energy. This means that for every person making a meal out of beef; at least 20 people could use the same resources to consume a meal of grains or vegetables. However, driven by the tastes of a large, lucrative consumer base, an ever increasing amount of the world’s agricultural resources are being devoted to the production of meat.
While a typical adult male needs 55 grams of protein per day, and a typical woman 45, in the UK the average person consumes 105 grams of protein on a daily basis – roughly twice what they need, and the vast majority of it from meat. To sustain this level of consumption, most developed countries have put in place extensive subsidies which act to reshape agriculture across the world. For example, subsidies for the growth of livestock feed divert the use of cropland away from growing crops for direct human consumption. This in turn reduces the supply of these crops – often the staples of diets the world over – and drives up their prices.
But it’s not just our overconsumption of meat that is sustained through substantial subsidies. Many ingredients which go into profitable, processed foodstuffs are highly subsidised, often due to the substantial lobbying power of food producers. In fact, the American agricultural system is so heavily subsidised that it’s often cheaper to eat at a fast food restaurant than to cook a vegetarian meal, despite the fact that vegetables and grains tend to require the least resources to produce.
But subsidies alone aren’t at fault. Our own appetites for sugary and fatty foods have created an enormous market, which has in turn reshaped the incentives for food producers across the world. Our demand for food and drink dense with sugars has helped turn corn – which makes corn-syrup, the world’s most common processed sugar – into one of the more lucrative crops on the planet. However the more corn which we dedicate to sweeteners, the more expensive it becomes for those who depend on corn as a staple to purchase what they need to survive. At the same time, as cropland is dedicated to the more profitable crops which go into processed food, land is diverted away from growing the basic staples upon which the poorest depend, pushing the price of these staples ever higher.
Oil crops – crops which are grown for the purposes of extracting oil – are another big culprit in this. Whether it’s the repurposing of grain fields to grow soy, the source of most ‘vegetable oil’. Or the massive deforestation and destruction of swamp land in Southeast Asia to grow palm oil, the massive demand for oil crops creates repercussions most felt by the world’s poor and vulnerable. Not only that, trends show oil crops becoming an ever more integral part of our diets, with the growth in their production hugely outstripping that of cereals and other more essential crops.
The combined effect of these practices has been to sow the seeds of a global food crisis. People across the world have risen up in protest against their governments driven, in no small part, by the rising costs and increased scarcity of basic foodstuffs. Other governments have become intent on buying up crop futures or land from less developed countries – often looking to guarantee their future food security at the expense of others’. Countries across Europe and Asia are imposing bans on the export on many foodstuffs, as they struggle to maintain supplies that can feed their populations. In the UK the price of grain is at an all-time high, while globally, sugar has hit a 30 year high, and the Economist’s overall index of food prices has risen by over 78% in recent years. All signs point to a shaky outlook in terms of food securities. While in the past food crises have been linked to disruptive events such as oil price shocks or the onset of recession, this crisis seems more linked to our own consumption habits, and their effects on the world agricultural system. Tellingly, it’s not a lack of supply, but an abundance of demand which has driven the rise in prices.
It is true that the proportion of the world’s population suffering from hunger is on the decline, but in the poorest parts of the world, the problem of malnutrition is only worsening. As we indulge in diets ever more laden in sugary and fatty processed foods, and as developing nations foster emerging middle classes, which quickly become a part of the global obesity crisis, the world’s poorest become firmly mired in poverty and hunger. While the global obesity crisis has taken a deathly toll in terms of increased rates of heart disease, diabetes and other preventable causes of death, we have the knowledge to reverse these trends. Indeed, the gravest costs of the obesity crisis may not be bourn by the world’s overweight, but by the hungry and powerless, who continue to suffer, as victims of our affluence.