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Rising Obesity in Africa Reflects a Broken Global Food System

A young girl runs a restaurant cum bar, in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. December 13, 2008. (Photo by: Majority World/UIG via Getty Images)

When I visited Kigali, Rwanda’s capital last week, I noticed an array of new fast food restaurants downtown. This is not an exception —places such as Burger King, Pizza Hut and KFC are proliferating across Africa.

Meanwhile, obesity rates are skyrocketing across the continent. Eight of the 20 nations with the fastest rising rates of adult obesity in the world are in Africa, according to research by the University of Washington. This has caught the public health community, more used to nutrition problems in Africa related to famine, off-guard.

But don’t confuse rising obesity with diminished hunger. Although the world produces enough food to feed everyone 1.5 times over, hunger is again on the rise. Last year, 821m people went to bed hungry each night. In the US, where food production is bountiful, nearly 15 per cent of the population is challenged by hunger; in Africa, where famines are recurrent, it is 23 per cent. Malnutrition, from either undernourishment or obesity, affects nearly half the world.

Current food production methods also come with significant environmental costs. Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of all freshwater use; takes up roughly 50 per cent of the planet’s vegetated land; and is responsible for nearly 25 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than every car, truck, ship, train, and plane combined.

Even the good news — living standards rising for billions — is causing public health and environmental problems as food consumption habits change. The UN expects demand for meat, dairy and eggs in Africa to nearly quadruple by 2050. What we are choosing to eat, is making us and the planet sick.

The problems stem from the decision over the past 50 years to maximise production and profit in the food industry, at the expense of public health and natural resource management. The system encourages cereal grains and animal protein production, which if consumed in excess, cause more harm than good.

Public and private investment in food and agriculture research largely flows to these food types — corn, rice, wheat, and animal protein — creating further imbalances. For example, subsidies for cereal crops are such that only 2 per cent of US cropland is dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables.

Past interventions to address nutritional deficiencies by fortifying “staple crops” with vitamins have saved lives, but have also distorted demand. They downplayed the need to increase the production and consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes. Instead economic and government incentives led to the proliferation of unhealthy convenience foods in vulnerable places such as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The food production system must now prioritise public and planetary health over purely commercial goals. Global food policies must encourage the production of a diverse range of foods naturally rich in the vitamins and minerals people need to be healthy. One sensible approach would be to limit or end the use of refined and processed products in public institutions. Let’s replace them with whole, nutritious foods grown within a reasonable distance.

We should also rethink our approach to protein. People need protein to survive, but the main source, animal agriculture, does great harm to our planet. Yet plant-based protein alone is not the perfect answer, as new research reveals that children benefit from only a small amount of animal protein each day in their diets. Therefore, our challenge is to rebalance plant and animal proteins in our diet to reduce livestock’s impact on our planet.

Rising hunger and malnutrition along with declining natural resources and a warming planet threaten our existence. A global food system that is more focused on health and the environment is badly needed.

This piece first appeared in the Opinion section of The Financial Times on 16 September 2018.


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