“The bottom line is that our food environment is deeply unhealthy. And unless we change that, millions of people will suffer from avoidable illness and die early from preventable death,” Dr Tom Frieden, CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, told the World Health Summit in Berlin.
“Voluntary changes are much less likely to result in sustainable positive healthy development than a predictable regulatory framework,” said Frieden, speaking at a session on ‘Transforming Food Systems for Healthy and Sustainable Diets.
He pointed to five areas that needed targeted action to address malnutrition – micronutrient deficiencies, artificial transfat, excessive sodium, excessive sugar and the higher cost of healthier foods.
“Let’s be clear that simply encouraging people to eat better and exercise more will not only fail, but is essentially a form of blaming the victim.
According to the WHO, 1.9 billion adults in the world are obese and 462 million are underweight. Almost 233 million children under the age of five suffer from some form of malnutrition and around 45% of deaths among children in that age group is linked to undernutrition.
In 2019, The Lancet Commission on obesity, undernutrition and climate change identified these three issues as the biggest threats to the world, and called for significant funding to address them, including but not limited to agriculture, food production and policy, land use and environment.
The United Nations Food Systems Summit in New York in 2021 also called for sustainable food systems and healthy diets for all, and Tuesday’s session was aimed at addressing the various commercial determinants involved in achieving this goal.
Some countries are already reforming their food systems to deliver healthier options to their populations using measures such as investment in agriculture, tax subsidies for companies that produce healthier foods to make them more affordable and regulations ensure processed food adheres to strict health standards.
Government regulation of companies that manufacture processed and unhealthy foods and their marketing strategies can help the cause, according to Frieden.
“We’re not absolving individuals from responsibility. But we’re not absolving society from the responsibility of establishing the structure to make the healthy choice the easier choice either,” added Frieden, explaining that measures like front-of-the-pack warnings, increasing the price of unhealthy food and reducing the price of healthy food have helped.
Commercial determinants of obesity and chronic diseases are very well-documented and so is the power wielded by influential processed food corporations across the world, said Dr Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.
She pointed to the Lancet Commission’s report and stated that big food companies are not social service agencies with public health as the goal: “They’re businesses with stockholders to please. They have to put profits to stockholders as their first priority, no matter what the people in the companies think they would like to do about hunger, malnutrition, chronic disease and climate change,” she said, calling for a regulatory framework that puts all food companies on the same level playing field.
Keep companies out of public policy
One of the Lancet Commission’s recommendations was the reduction in the influence of large commercial interests in public policy development to “enable governments to implement policies in the public interest to benefit the health of current and future generations, the environment, and the planet”.
Explaining the complicated relationship many governments have with processed food companies, Nestle said that this is a difficult situation. “It’s one that public health advocates have to figure out how to deal with, which means increasing advocacy in civil society,” she said.
“We ought to be doing what the Lancet Commission suggested, which is keeping food companies out of public policy decisions. They should not be at the table when public health policy is being discussed. They need to be regulated in terms of marketing, and in terms of what the formulation of their products is.”
However, companies that manufacture and market processed foods play a crucial role in the eco-system and should not be ignored, argued Rocco Renaldi, the secretary-general of the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA).
“We made a commitment on (reducing) sodium…to achieve a global set of sodium targets for our products by 2025, and 2030. These are minimum global targets, you can go further at national level,” he said.
He was referring to the Nutrition for Growth Summit held in Tokyo in 2021, where the member states of the WHO agreed to a 30% reduction in the global salt intake by 2025.
While reformulation of products to reduce salt and sugar was important, demonising processed foods is not the answer, he said. “The real answer is how to rebalance the system so that different types of food occupy the right space within that system,” Renaldi argued.
Like many other public health challenges, money is a crucial bottleneck in addressing the issue of malnutrition across the world.
Food financing needs to be envisioned in a different way to achieve these goals, said Dr Geeta Sethi, an advisor at the World Bank. She added that the private sector has deep pockets that will help fund these goals but are deterred by perceived risks.
“For some reason, we in the food sector have not been able to price risk in a way that allows private finance to come in. This is urgently needed.. the change agents have to be the private finance,” she added.
“In a nutshell, food systems do not lack financing…the public support for agriculture and food is $700billion a year,” she stated, adding that if food subsidies were a country, they would be the 19th largest economy in the world. “And this is not even considering the massive spending of the private sector, which is around $2 trillion.”
Sustainable food systems
While countries like Indonesia and Bhutan are actively redesigning their food systems and production pathways, countries like Germany, Sweden and Fiji have been successful in creating sustainable food systems that are healthy for their populations.
“We would like to establish a framework that will be tracking institutional things that are happening in the governments, but also the behavioural change that’s happening in the stakeholders and in the private sector,” Dr Stefanos Fotiou, the director of the UN Food Systems Coordination Hub said.
The need for political will to address these challenges also came up repeatedly as various ministers shared their experiences in designing and implementing policies around the issue.
Speaking about her experience in Germany, Dr Doris Heberle, from the federal ministry of food and agriculture said that reducing the intake of salt is not an easy task since it impacts trade-related issues like the shelf-life of food products.
“But we are going to have more scientific advice and scientific evidence to get better targets for reduction patterns and also to attune those to the target groups which are the most vulnerable,” she added.
Taking public health decisions when trade is a huge factor in the economy is difficult, said Dr Ifereimi Waqainabete, Fiji’s health minister. He added that small countries like Fiji are pushed to choose between nutritious food that is expensive and cheap food that is less nutritious.
Waqainabete added that his government had distributed seeds and plants to people during the COVID-19 lockdown to encourage local food production and the regeneration of agriculture.
“We also regenerated our ocean area by bringing back the village system and the tribal system where you have your own ‘parish’ where you fish traditionally and stop fishing at a particular time. And we found that by doing that we’re able to regenerate our ocean,” said Waqainabete.
Sweden’s Ambassador for Global Health, Dr Anders Nordström said his government only procured healthy food for the education and healthcare sectors and this ensured that the most vulnerable received the healthiest options.
“This has been a policy for a long time… we serve about three million meals every day and this has had a dramatic positive impact. What is interesting is that (the government) has been also putting into those policies that those meals should not just be healthy, they should be affordable.”
Image Credits: Scott Warman/ Unsplash, Megha Kaveri/Health Policy Watch.
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