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The Great Food Divide

Monday, October 17, 2011

By Alex Formuzis, EWG V-P for Media Relations The fortunate among us need never struggle with either hunger or obesity. This morning my healthy 3-year old had yogurt, a banana and scrambled egg whites for breakfast before beginning her day. But for many in the U.S. and around the world, the story is very different.

Last month (Sept. 22), the World Disasters Report 2011 of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) highlighted the two very different struggles that people around the world are facing over food: the number of people considered overweight or obese has hit 1.5 billion, far outnumbering the 925 million who are literally fighting for crumbs. The obesity epidemic is most often identified with Americans and other Western populations, but it has exploded into a full blown crisis in much of the rest of the world as well, including countries such as China and India that also have millions of people going hungry. And "globesity," as it's called, is on course to afflict millions more.

The World Health Organization predicts that more than 2.3 billion people will be overweight and 700 million considered obese by 2015. As in the United States, the global obesity epidemic hits hard among children. Worldwide, the World Health Organization found that more than 43 million children under 5 years of age were overweight, 35 million of them in developing countries. Why is this happening? One of the main reasons is that more people than ever are consuming heavily processed "food" that offers little more than calories, sugar and fats. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that about 17 percent of American children between 2 and 19 years of age are now obese, a threefold increase since 1980. And in the US, like the rest of the world, childhood obesity is much more prevalent in low-income communities where fast food chains and snack stores are often the cheapest, most convenient options for families.

Those with fewer resources are more likely to have diets heavy in processed food instead of fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins and whole grains. The CDC estimates that one of every seven preschoolers from low-income families is technically obese. Spreading the Inactivity and Poor Diet In addition to fundamental shifts in diets driven by the availability of fast food, other factors contributing to the explosion of obesity around the world include decreased physical activity due to improved access to modern transportation, including cars, trains and buses. As the World Health Organization put it, "Increased consumption of more energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods with high levels of sugar and saturated fats, combined with reduced physical activity, have led to obesity rates that have risen three-fold or more since 1980..." "They are simply catching up with us in terms of all the modern 'conveniences,' such as fast food, vending machines and so on," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.

On the other end of this dismal spectrum is the growing number of people who suffer from undernourishment. According to the IFRC, 15 percent of the world's population goes to bed hungry each night - many of them children. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of them are in the populous countries of Asia. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has this geographical breakdown for 2010:

Food Divide for EB.png

Extreme poverty, political and military conflict, climate change and misguided agriculture policies in the developed world all play a role in this catastrophe. In recent years, for instance, the United States Congress has mandated that fully 40 percent of all corn crops be used for ethanol, taking out of production millions of acres of farmland that could have been dedicated to food instead of fuel. This policy has put pressure on prices of this and other food staples, reducing the availability of common grains for famine-plagued populations. Hunger Amid Plenty Adding to the crisis is the fact that vast amounts of food are simply wasted. Americans alone throw out about 40 percent of the food they buy, according to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland.

Today, Oct. 19, 2011, nearly 18,000 people worldwide will die from hunger-related causes. In the same 24 hours, only a little more than $3 million will be spent globally on food aid - a tenth of what Americans and Europeans combined will spend on pet food. Yet there are 515 million obese people around world right now, and, today, Oct. 19, 2011, obesity-related diseases will cost the U.S. economy more than $281 million. These figures come from data and research conducted by the WHO, the United Nations and the National Institutes of Health. If nothing changes, the arc of these pandemics will leave more than 3 billion people sick, dying or dead in the next few years. By 2020, those affected would make up about a third of the entire world population.

"If the free interplay of market forces has produced an outcome where 15 per cent of humanity is hungry while a fifth is overweight, something has gone wrong. Economics exists for people, not vice versa," wrote Bekele Geleta, the secretary general of the Red Cross/Red Crescent federation. "If this lamentable situation is to be tackled, we must find ways to regulate the laws of supply and demand and promote a more equitable distribution of food between those who have too little to eat, and those with too much."

You'll find Mr. Geleta's entire statement here. It's compelling commentary and analysis of this global crisis.

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