Public health experts have called for a global treaty to promote healthy eating and environmentally sustainable agriculture in a bid to limit the political influence of big corporate food manufacturers.
The Lancet Commission on Obesity, an international panel convened by the London-based medical journal, proposes a Framework Convention on Food Systems, modelled on the UN conventions on tobacco and climate change. It would commit countries to fight both obesity and its converse, undernutrition.
“Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories,” said Professor Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland, commission co-chair.
“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.”
The commission takes aim at what Richard Horton, the Lancet editor-in-chief, called “the prevailing business model of large international food and beverage companies that focus on maximising short-term profits”.
The approach, he said, leads to “overconsumption of nutrient-poor food and beverages in both high-income countries and increasingly in low and middle-income countries”.
Mexico’s sugary drinks tax is held up as an example for other countries to follow. Despite attempts by the beverage industry to soften the measures, Mexico added 10 per cent tax to sweetened drinks in 2014. Within two years, consumption of sugary drinks was reduced by 7.6 per cent.
The commission calls for a $1bn global fund “to support 100 other countries to apply Mexico’s approach to implement food and nutrition policies.”
The authors anticipate strong resistance from the food and drinks industry to their proposals. They cite a study by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest in Washington DC which concluded that in 2016-17 the sugary drinks sector spent $50m in the US to lobby against local initiatives to reduce soda consumption.
The report follows the publication on January 17 of the linked EAT-Lancet Commission which provided scientific targets for a healthy diet that would be good both for the individual and the planet, including a controversial sixfold reduction in meat consumption by people living in the industrialised west.
“EAT said what needs to be done, we talk about how it could be accomplished,” said Professor William Dietz of George Washington University in Washington DC, co-chair of the obesity commission which included 43 experts from 14 countries.
The authors say that $500bn a year of government agricultural subsidies which now support beef, dairy, sugar, maize, rice and wheat production should gradually be redirected “to sustainable farming for healthful foods”. At the same time $5tn a year in fossil fuel subsidies should instead support renewable energy and public transport.
Red meat consumption could be cut by redirected subsidies, taxes, health and environmental labelling and “social marketing”. The result, according to the report, would be less cancer and obesity — and a win for the fight against climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions (methane and carbon dioxide) from livestock production.
The proposed Framework Convention on Food Systems would explicitly exclude the food industry from policy development, in the same way as the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control shuts out cigarette companies. The commission avoids naming individual companies but labels the whole multinational food and drinks industry as Big Food.
The global industry is dominated by multinationals such as PepsiCo, Nestlé and Tyson Foods.
“Although food clearly differs from tobacco because it is a necessity to support human life, unhealthy food and beverages are not,” said Prof Dietz. “The similarities with Big Tobacco lie in the damage they induce and the behaviours of the corporations that profit from them.”
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