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Want to fix obesity and climate change at the same time? Make Big Food companies pay.

A new report says food companies are pursuing profit at the expense of public and environmental health. That has to change.

This global food system also generates up to a third of greenhouse gas emissions.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Obesity, climate change, and malnutrition are among the greatest global crises facing our world today. Wouldn’t it be great if there were solutions to tackle all three problems at once?

That might sound far-fetched. But a new report, published Sunday in the Lancet, implores us to think about the possibility of big, systemic fixes for these interrelated scourges.

Overnutrition, undernutrition, and global warming share common causes: powerful commercial interests that promote overconsumption, “policy inertia,” and weak governance, according to the report, led by the University of Auckland in New Zealand, George Washington University in the US, and World Obesity Federation in the UK.

Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the global food industry: Large food companies stuff our shelves with calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. They market their sugary drinks and snacks to children. And they lobby politicians to obstruct policies and subsidies that’d help us eat healthier.

This global food system also generates up to a third of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Some governments have been trying to address health and environmental problems in a holistic manner. For example, Sweden, Germany, Qatar, and Brazil have all developed national food guidelines “that promote environmentally sustainable diets and eating patterns that ensure food security,” according to the report. Mexico and Britain (and local governments across the US) are experimenting with sugary drinks taxes, and Chile is leading the world with warning labels on packaged foods.

But progress is patchy and too slow, the report authors warn. In the US, for example, obesity is on the rise, and the same is true for many low- and middle-income countries. We’re also hurtling toward an environmental catastrophe as temperatures continue to increase.

“Trying to prevent malnutrition, obesity, and unsustainable agricultural practices has been impossible in the face of food industry opposition to public health measures that might reduce product sales,” said Marion Nestle, a food policy researcher at New York University, who was not involved in the study. “This report makes it clear that governments must act to curb food industry practices that promote poor health and damage the environment.” To do that, the report authors argue, we need an international treaty, one that treats Big Food companies like Big Tobacco. Here’s why.

How climate change, obesity, and malnutrition are related

Obesity now kills more people worldwide than car crashes, terror attacks, and Alzheimer’s combined, and costs 2.8 percent of the world’s GDP. Undernutrition — stunting, nutrient deficiencies, wasting — affects more than 2 billion people around the world, and in Africa and Asia diminishes 4 to 11 percent of GDP.

Climate change is already displacing thousands from their homes, creating food crises, and exacerbating extreme weather events. In the future, it’s expected to cost 5 to 10 percent of the world’s GDP.

“These crises have historically been thought of as separate and distinct, even contradictory,” said John Auerbach, president and CEO of the public health nonprofit the Trust for America’s Health. “The most significant [contribution of the report] is drawing a natural connection between the three issues.”

Obesity and undernutrition are indeed related problems. Many people today are more likely to have access to industrially produced junk foods depleted of nutritional value than more expensive fruits and vegetables. These products promote obesity and malnutrition — sometimes in the same people.

These problems are also exacerbated by food insecurity, or the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food.

“In reality, [obesity and undernutrition] 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,” said the co-chair of the report, professor Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland, in a statement.

Climate change is expected to make food insecurity worse, as extreme weather events cause droughts, interrupt growing seasons, and change the prices of basic food commodities.

Food production is also contributing to global warming. “The energy required for the production, harvesting, transportation, and packaging of wasted foods also generates more than 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually,” according to the report, “making food wastage the third top emitter after the USA and China.”

The report comes a week after another Lancet report, which reminded us: “The way we eat and produce food has become so destructive to the environment and our health that it now threatens the long-term survival of the human species,” as Vox’s Eliza Barclay reported. The authors provided the first science-based diet — one that’s plant-based — for a healthier planet and people.

For the latest report, the authors call for broader solutions: more sustainable agricultural practices, redirecting food subsidies to support healthy, environmentally friendly food-production activities, and holding food companies to account for the pollution they’re contributing. To do all this, they propose an elegant solution: an international treaty modeled on the one that helped curb smoking worldwide.

An elegant solution for obesity, climate change, and malnutrition

The United Nations’ Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, established in 2005, recognized that tobacco companies were creating the epidemic of disease by promoting smoking and blocking policies to curb smoking. Today, 180 countries have ratified the treaty, which commits the countries to anti-smoking regulations, such as requiring graphic warnings on packs.

“There has been a reluctance to consider Big Food industry in the same way as Big Tobacco because of the fact that people need food and liquids to survive,” said Auerbach. “But now, after many years of trying to work productively work with the Big Food industry, there’s a growing recognition that they need to be dealt with in some of the same ways that tobacco industry was.”

The report authors call for an international treaty: A “Framework Convention on Food Systems” would be a legal framework that binds countries to create food systems that promote health and environmental sustainability.

The global treaty could empower countries to take actions such as drawing up food guidelines that actually reflect best nutrition and agricultural practices, experimenting with soda taxes, and building accountability mechanisms for companies that have polluting production practices.

“Although food clearly differs from tobacco because it is a necessity to support human life, unhealthy food and beverages are not,” said report author William Dietz, a professor at George Washington University. “The similarities with Big Tobacco lie in the damage they induce and the behaviors of the corporations that profit from them.”

“The industry hasn’t been forced to deal with its climate effects,” said University of North Carolina researcher Barry Popkin, who was not involved with the report. It’s about time that changed.

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