Credit: Bruno

What we eat is making us sick say food experts

The global food system is making us all ill. That’s the warning cry from some of the world’s leading food researchers who have made a bid to UN experts today in Rome for more political action on what they describe as the negative impact of our food system on human health.

Unhealthy diets and lack of access to nutritious food are two of the driving factors behind what a new report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems describes as the “ballooning costs of health impacts in food systems”.

The research outlines that the global cost of malnutrition comes in at $3.5 trillion per year, and the cost of obesity alone is estimated to be $760 billion by 2025.

But unhealthy diets are just the tip of the iceberg. Lead author Cecilia Rocha said:

“Unhealthy diets are the most obvious link, but are only one of many pathways through which food and farming systems affect human health. This means that there are multiple entry points for building healthier food systems. We must urgently address these impacts wherever they occur, and in parallel we must address the root causes of inequitable, unsustainable and unhealthy practices in food systems.”

Unhealthy working conditions in the food supply chain, environmentally-harmful food production processes, and food unfit for consumption also have huge implications for human health, according to the researchers. Specifically they cite occupational hazards facing those working in chemical-intensive agriculture, concentrated livestock production, the mass production and marketing of ultra-processed foods, deregulated global supply chains, and nitrate-contaminated drinking water as key problems.

Farming’s role in the spread of antimicrobial resistance was also referenced in the study. Anti-microbial resistant infections incur around $20-34 billion of annual costs in the US.  An international conference on antibiotic resistance will take place in Berlin this week, organised by the Wellcome Trust in partnership with the UK, Ghanaian and Thai governments and the UN Foundation.

Olivier De Schutter, an ex-UN food special rapporteur and now co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

“When all of these health impacts are considered collectively, the grounds for reform are compelling. And when health impacts are placed alongside social and environmental impacts, and the mounting costs they generate, the case for action is overwhelming. It is now clearer than ever that healthy people and a healthy planet are co-dependent.”

Today’s study follows on from a 2016 report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems’ which called for a “paradigm shift” towards ecological farm practices that help keep carbon in the ground, support nature, rebuild soil fertility, improve air quality and public health, and secure farm livelihoods by sustaining yields over time.

But it remains to be seen whether these calls for change to the food system will be heeded by governments. Speaking to the Guardian last week at the Extinction and Livestock conference on the hidden costs of the industrial farming system, Karl Falkenberg, ex-Director General for Environment at the European Commission, said:

“With all the knowledge that we have, why can we still not get the right governance decisions? Why do we continuously do the wrong things?”

The UN Committee on World Food Security meets in Rome all this week.