Trade and consumption of cheap junk food are an obstacle for healthy diets

FAO Director-General addressing a workshop at the Vatican calls for public policies that target obesity and overweight

12 September 2018, Rome - The globalized food system is not delivering the diets that people need for a healthy life, but instead contributes to obesity and overweight especially in countries that are importing most of their food, FAO Director-General, José Graziano da Silva said today.

"Unfortunately, commodities and industrialized cheap food are much easier for international trade," Graziano da Silva said, addressing participants of a technical workshop on food safety and healthy diets organized by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The problem is rife in the small island developing states in the Pacific, which have to import most of their food, with obesity rates ranging from more than 30 percent in Fiji to 80 percent among women in American Samoa. In at least 10 Pacific Island countries, more than 50 percent (and in some up to 90 percent) of the population is overweight. The overconsumption of imported industrialized food high in salt, sodium, sugar and trans fats is the major driver behind this situation. 

Estimates indicate that today 2.6 billion are overweight and that the prevalence of obesity in the global population has increased from 11.7 percent in 2012 to 13.2 percent in 2016.

"If we do not adopt urgent actions to halt the increasing obesity rates, we soon may have more obese people than undernourished people in the world," Graziano da Silva said. "There are several underlying factors driving the global pandemic of obesity. Unhealthy diets are the most significant one."

He pointed to the increased availability and accessibility of food types that are very energy-dense, high in fat, sugar and salt, whose sales have been spurred on by intense marketing and advertising.

"Fast and junk food is the best example of that. This kind of food is cheaper, and easier to access and prepare than fresh food, particularly for poor people in urban areas," Graziano said, noting that when resources for food become scarce, people choose less expensive foods that are often high in caloric density and low in nutrients.

The consumption of these cheap foods comes however, at a high cost to society with obesity a risk factor for many non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes  and some cancers.

Public action, consumer behaviour

 "Countries should have in place laws that protect healthy and local diets, and encourage the private sector to produce healthier food," Graziano da Silva said. These could include taxes on unhealthy food products; clear and informative labelling of products; restrictions of advertising for junk food to children; and, a reduction in the levels of salt and sugar used to produce food, or even banning the use of some ingredients such as trans fats.

Governments should also encourage food diversification, and facilitate market access for local products from family farming, for example, school feeding programmes that link local production to school meals, thus boosting the local economy while promoting healthy diets for children.

The FAO Director-General also said trade agreements must be designed in ways that make local nutritious food cheaper to produce, while restricting the influx of imported cheap food that are high in fat, sugar and salt.

He also stressed the importance of education, including school curricula that teach children about healthy cooking and healthy food choices, and greater access to information for consumers to promote awareness and healthier dietary choices.

He informed participants about two international conferences on food safety to be organized early next year: one convened by the African Union/FAO/WHO in Addis Ababa; and another international meeting jointly organized by FAO/WHO/WTO on Food Safety, Standards and Trade to be held in Geneva.   

Today's workshop included participants from government, academia, civil society and international institutions.

Quotes from the workshop:

Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of GAIN:

"What people eat is at the heart of all forms of malnutrition and is the main driver of disease. But diet quality does not automatically improve the income growth - it will take concerted systemic action at an intensified level to improve it. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) applauds FAO leadership in this sphere and is proud to be its partner on this critical issue."

Dr. Amare Ayalew, Director of Parntership for Aflatoxin Control, Africa:

"Food safety has remained to be an orphan pillar of food security. The scale and complexity of aflatoxin contamination of staple and cash crops in Africa illustrate the need for partnerships towards systemic change. The food safety challenge is too big and too complex to be left to any single player."

Jessica Fanzo, Senior Programme Officer, FAO:

"Making investments that ensure food systems and food environments are providing healthier and safe diets for everyone is a challenging task due to their complexity and trade-offs, as well as the range of decision-makers shaping those systems. It is only fair that policymakers should have the latest and most rigorous evidence in-hand when formulating policies that will best address how to orient nutrition-friendly food systems. Instead, they are often functioning in the dark, with limited data on what works for their specific context. FAO is working with countries to better unpack the necessary evidence to take actions on improving the health and safety of diets."

Photo: ©REUTERS/Mariana Bazo
Fast food is often cheaper, and easier to access and prepare than fresh food.