Fruit Transport, Africa

Africa: The Future of a Global Obesity Epidemic

How can it be that both obesity and hunger are rising in Africa? President Rajiv Shah of the Rockefeller Foundation tells us that it’s the inevitable result of a broken global food system. Famines still ravage this continent. But incomes are also rising in the growing urban centers. And that’s precisely where obesity taking off.

A Global Food System Out of Balance

The “Big Food” industry operates within a global framework for producing food and feeding the world. Policy decisions have sent both public and private money into maximizing production of grains and animal protein. It’s a massive system that’s become very efficient. Big food companies convert those inputs into processed and convenient food that consumers all over the world will eagerly buy. Western fast food chains process and prepare cheap and tasty food from inexpensive commodities.

By contrast, very little resource goes into producing fruits and vegetables. Only two percent of U.S. crop land serves this purpose. Thus we have a system that meets human needs for energy, but not for good health. We have plenty of food, but the quality is poor when judged by its health effects.

On top of that, uneven distribution systems leave many populations still facing periodic famine and hunger. Climate change is making this worse.

Environmental Impact

Part of the problem is that food and agriculture policy has been strangely cut off from environmental policy. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the development of U.S. dietary guidelines. The expert advisory committee for the 2015 guidelines factored environmental impact into its recommendations.

When the federal government issued final guidelines, it took environmental factors out. Meat production – especially beef – is tough on the global environment. But that’s not the USDA’s problem. A big part of USDA’s mission is to help the agriculture industry. So putting the brakes on meat consumption just does not compute.

Thus, sorting out the environmental impact of dietary guidelines is a task for another day.

A Reckoning in Africa

In Africa, we have a stark picture of the imperative for a more sustainable food system. Climate change is making hunger and famine into an ever more difficult problem. Political instability results and also feeds the problem. Current norms for food production are adding to the problem.

Economic development invites a global food system into urban centers. Obesity and type 2 diabetes are rising in parts of Africa as fast or faster than anywhere else in the world. In South Africa, vegetables have become a luxury that few can afford.

Change is inevitable. Some participants in the current system will help to bring that change. Others will resist and inevitably lose out.

To read more from Shah, click here. For more on obesity in Africa, click here and here.

Fruit Transport, Africa; photograph © fcmarriott / flickr

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September 17, 2018