Unbalanced diet: Global poverty and obesity

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Article Social Justice
Our eating binge is purging the developing world of access to healthy foods.

In a world of want where 1.4 billion people are struggling to survive on $1.25 a day, the No. 1 global health problem related to food is now obesity. According to the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), the 1.5 billion obese people worldwide now outnumber the 925 million who are hungry.

We are eating ourselves to death in one corner of the planet, while in another families skip meals to extend food budgets or trade education or shelter for daily caloric survival. Worse, some 16,000 children still starve to death each day. That’s more than five times the World Trade Center death toll that shocked the world out of geopolitical complacency.

Asia-Pacific Red Cross director Jagan Chapagain called this grotesque paradox of overabundance and scarcity the world’s “double-edged scandal,” adding that “excess nutrition now kills more than hunger.”

Prepare for more grotesquerie in the future— both obesity and hunger are poised to escalate. As First World diets are overwhelmed by “inexpensive” processed foods that contribute to obesity and runaway health costs that are proving a crippling economic burden in the West, hunger looms in the developing world as world commodity prices spike to record levels and drought brings famine to regions in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

“If the free interplay of market forces has produced an outcome where 15 percent of humanity are hungry while 20 percent are overweight, something has gone wrong somewhere,” IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta said last September.

It is not too difficult to locate where global food policy has gone wrong. Agricultural policies in the West continue to encourage the overproduction of inexpensive food-like products that define the unhealthy “normal” diet, overloaded with meat fat, sugar, and “innovations” like high-fructose corn syrup. Meanwhile the newly affluent in Brazil, India, and China rapidly convert to the American diet.

This diet switch and other forces—U.S. monetary policy, commodity speculation, bad weather, and the diversion of food crops to biofuel production—have conspired to double and even triple the cost of food staples like wheat, rice, and soy beans in the developing world. Such price hikes can more or less be easily absorbed in advanced economies, but in much of the developing world, 50 cents more a day for rice can be devastating. As a result, hunger will surely rise.

What makes that outcome most appalling is that the crisis is not the result of scarcity. It is the global commodity market, not Malthus, that is dictating the cockeyed distribution of food in the world and the resulting impact on individual well-being. Geleta called it “profoundly disturbing” that despite historic abundance, “we seem to be going backwards in terms of ensuring basic food is available and affordable.”

“Eating is a moral act” has long been the evocative catchphrase of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. The epigram is meant to prod consumers to think a little more deeply about a daily act that most take for granted. Most of us may associate the moral implications of food with its growing, gathering, and processing. But these new statistics from the Red Cross suggest that the requirements of good stewardship extend beyond sustainable growing fields or the ethical treatment of farmworkers and animals to ourselves. It is only to the good that more consumers educate themselves about agricultural policy and encourage reforms to reduce market-distorting subsidies in food-producing nations, allowing local agricultural markets to remain viable or to be restored.

But eating is a moral act that includes good stewardship of our own bodies and appetites. We contribute to more than just our individual poor health when we fill up at the junk food bin. Eating locally grown, unprocessed food products while cutting back on meats and fats will do us, and the globe’s hungry, a world of good.

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 2, page 55).

Image: Tom Wright