The world needs to come up with solutions to fight three interrelated pandemics — obesity, starvation and climate change — and it needs to do it fast before the planet is “burning,” according to a report released Sunday in the Lancet.
The Lancet Commission, a group of 43 experts from 14 countries with a broad range of expertise recruited by the journal, has tackled the topic with high-profile reports in 2011 and 2015, but “little progress has been made” other than acknowledging the epidemic, the authors of the newest report argue; in fact, the problem is getting worse.
Around the world, not one country has reversed its obesity epidemic, and often, powerful companies driven by profit influence policy that is “at odds with the public good and planetary health,” the report says. It’s a problem that has become what the authors call a global syndemic.
A syndemic is “a synergy of pandemics that co-occur,” interact and share common causes. These three pandemics represent the “paramount challenge for humans, the environment and our planet.”
Together, obesity and malnutrition are the biggest cause of premature death. Globally, more than 2 billion adults and children are overweight or obese and have health problems because of it, research shows. People don’t or can’t exercise, and that’s the fourth leading risk factor for death.
Simultaneously, the opposite problem exists. In 2017, world hunger increased for the third consecutive year, UN research shows. Two billion struggle with micronutrient deficiencies, and 815 million are chronically undernourished, the report says.
As global temperatures rise even faster than predicted, climate change could lead to many more deaths than the 250,000 a year the World Health Organization predicted just five years ago. Because of food shortages alone, the world could see a net increase of 529,000 adult deaths by 2050, according to research.
The new reports suggest that there is a solution: Governments, companies and activists should tackle these obesity and undernutrition issues while tackling climate change. Each problem is related, and each, in large part, happens because of “misplaced economic incentives,” “powerful vested interests,” “policy inertia” and “insufficient” demand for change from the public.
Solutions that help one could help the other. For example, if governments invest more in public transportation, that will make it more convenient and affordable for people to get to jobs that put food on the table. Those who drive less and take public transportation more often get more exercise and, studies show, tend not to be obese. If fewer people drove cars, there would also be less greenhouse gas to contribute to climate change.
The report’s other recommendations include reducing government subsidies for beef, dairy, sugar, corn, rice and wheat and redirecting that money to sustainable farming for healthier foods. Strengthening laws that increase transparency would let people see how much money politicians get from large food conglomerates to perpetuate unhealthy policies. Another suggestion: providing clear nutrition labels on products and adding labels to explain how sustainable a food is, including how much water and carbon it took to make it. Also, the authors recommend investing $70 billion over 10 years in a global “Food Fund” to reduce undernutrition.
The authors also say philanthropists should invest an additional $1 billion to boost social advocacy to demand solutions to these syndemics.
These syndemics “need to be tackled, and they have not been tackled, and this is a core concern,” said report co-author Tim Lobstein, policy director at the World Obesity Federation.
The authors say businesses could help lead the way, such as by investing more in sustainable energy. Such investment reduces the pollution that causes climate change and makes the air easier to breathe, meaning people can exercise outside more.
“The Lancet Commission Report may just contain the right ingredients needed for a nutritionally challenged world,” said Katie Dain, CEO of the Non Communicable Diseases Alliance global partnership, who was not involved in the report. “For too long, we have been daydreaming our way to a diseased future, one that is totally avoidable. The report’s interconnected message on nutrition and climate change is clear: A food system that secures a better diet for this and the immediate next generations will save millions of lives and, at the same time, also help save the planet.”
The authors hope the new report will start a conversation that creates alliances to push for better policies and encourage companies to create affordable products that would improve, rather than take away from, people’s health.
What we have now is “unsustainable, and we must act,” said report co-author William H. Dietz, director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness and a professor at George Washington University. Otherwise, the planet could be “burning” within 50 years.
Corinna Hawkes, a professor at City University London who worked on the report, notes, “No question it is highly aspirational, given today’s world.”
But Dietz added that urgent solutions are necessary. “We are running out of time.”