Five Ways to Tackle Disastrous Diets
“Our food systems are making people sick,” warned Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on the right to food, on March 6. “One in seven people globally are undernourished, and many more suffer from the 'hidden hunger' of micronutrient deficiency, while 1.3 billion are overweight or obese.”
“Faced with this public health crisis, we continue to prescribe medical remedies—nutrition pills and early-life nutrition strategies for those lacking in calories; slimming pills, lifestyle advice and calorie counting for the overweight. But we must tackle the systemic problems that generate poor nutrition in all its forms,” the independent expert said as he presented his report* on nutrition to the UN Human Rights Council.
“The right to food means not only access to an adequate quantity of food, but also the ability to have a balanced and nutritious diet,” Mr. De Schutter said. “Governments must not abstain from their responsibility to secure this right.”
Mr. De Schutter identified five priority actions for placing nutrition at the heart of food systems in the developed and developing world:
- taxing unhealthy products
- regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar
- cracking down on junk food advertising
- overhauling misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others
- supporting local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods
“Urbanization, supermarketization and the global spread of modern lifestyles have shaken up traditional food habits. The result is a public health disaster,” said De Schutter. “Governments have been focusing on increasing calorie availability, but they have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are on offer, at what price, to whom they are accessible, and how they are marketed.”
De Schutter highlighted, for example, that in 2010, U.S. companies spent $8.5 billion advertising food, candy and non-alcoholic beverages, while $44 million was budgeted for the government’s primary standing healthy eating program.**
“We have deferred to food companies the responsibility for ensuring that a good nutritional balance emerges. Voluntary guidelines and piecemeal nutrition initiatives have failed to create a system with the right signals, and the odds remain stacked against the achievement of a healthy, balanced diet,” he said.
De Schutter also identified the abundance of processed food as a major threat to improving nutrition. “Heavy processing thrives in our global food system, and is a win-win for multinational agri-food companies. Processed items can be produced and distributed on a huge scale, thanks to cheap subsidized ingredients and their increased shelf life.”
“But for the people, it is a lose-lose,” he stressed. “Heavily processed foods lead to diets richer in saturated and trans-fatty acids, salt and sugars. Children become hooked on the junk foods targeted at them. In better-off countries, the poorest population groups are most affected because foods high in fats, sugar and salt are often cheaper than healthy diets as a result of misguided subsidies whose health impacts have been wholly ignored.”
The UN expert noted that the West is now exporting diabetes and heart disease to developing countries, along with the processed foods that line the shelves of global supermarkets. By 2030, more than 5 million people will die each year before the age of 60 from non-communicable diseases linked to diets.
“We should not simply invest our hopes in medicalizing our diets with enriched products, or changing people’s choices through health warnings. We need ambitious, targeted nutrition strategies to protect the right to adequate food, and such strategies will only work if the food systems underpinning them are put right,” De Schutter said.
For more information, click here.
* Read the full report
** Food marketing figures from The Advertising Age, June 2011. US nutritional spending ($44m) refers to the Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity budget of the US Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and does not encompass various nutritional programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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