Criticism of obese called 'disturbing'
The world’s overweight people have been slammed again, this time for taking food out of the mouths of the world’s poor. “The excess consumption by the world’s obese costs US$20-billion annually, to which must be added indirect costs of US$100-billion resulting from premature death and related diseases,” United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization director-general Jacques Diouf said this week at a summit on world food security in Rome.
It used to be that the overweight were only hurting themselves and attracting unflattering attention because they needed wider airline seats and bigger hospital beds. Now, they are also being blamed for harming the world’s most vulnerable people.
Others at the summit in Rome also took swipes at the world’s well-fed nations for skewing food production with economic policies that favour some commodities over others. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva targeted United States farm subsidies, saying they “create dependency, break down entire production systems and provoke hunger and poverty where there could be prosperity.” Mr. Diouf’s provocative remark was different in that it specifically pushed the obesity button, one that collectively scapegoats overweight people for world issues ranging from rising food prices in the developing world to global warming.
The relationship between obesity and food policy is such a hot topic in academic circles that science as well as public figures are adding fuel to the fire.
Last month, a letter from two British researchers was published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. It argued that the eating habits of the obese were contributing to the world food crisis by pushing up food prices. And they had the calculations on body mass index and consumption to prove it.
Researchers Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said obese people consume 18% more calories than average, resulting in more fuel consumption to produce and transport food. Overeating by the obese drives up the cost of food for those who can’t afford it and contributes to global warming. The argument is both new and old. It evokes a visceral response to an injustice — the obese are overweight because of the moral weakness of gluttony and the luck to be born in prosperous societies. The weakness and luck of some people is hurting innocent people.
There is a legitimate point to be made about unequal food consumption, said Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System, which was released in Canada in March.
“If the entire world were to consume the average U. S. diet, we’d need six planets on which to grow it,” said Mr. Patel, a South African researcher who is a visiting scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of California.
But it will take more than the world’s overweight people deciding to cut down on consumption to change the structure of the global food system, said Mr. Patel, who calls Mr. Diouf’s comments “a tremendously disturbing” development.
One in 10 people on Earth — about 800 million people–are hungry. They are now outnumbered by the one billion people who are now overweight. But they did not all get that way by hogging the world’s food resources.
“The ‘world’s obese’ are not a homogeneous category, and there are many pathways to becoming obese,” Mr. Patel said. In fact, the poor in rich countries are more likely to become obese than those with solid incomes. So are the rich in poor countries. And the poor in poor countries.