5 Strategies the United Nations Special Rapporteur Suggests for Public Health

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By Alison Blackmore

With 1.3 billion people now overweight or obese, nearly 1 billion undernourished, and even more suffering from critical micronutrient deficiencies, it is no secret that our food system is broken. Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released a report in 2011 urging governments to move away from the practice of merely prescribing health warnings and applying band-aids to public health challenges. Instead, he urged governments to address the root causes of the international health crisis.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food urges governments to address the root causes of the international health crisis. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Today, Nourishing the Planet looks at the five actions that Mr. De Schutter suggests that governments take to protect the human right to adequate food around the world.

Taxing unhealthy products. De Schutter reported that taxing unhealthy products can be an effective strategy to encourage healthy diets, since price is an important determinant in consumption levels. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2007 showed that a 10 percent tax on soft drinks could lead to an 8–10 percent reduction in purchases. Because foods high in fat, salt, and sugar are cheap while nutritious diets can be expensive, many consumers gravitate toward unhealthy food choices out of financial necessity. To ensure a more equal food system, the report advises governments to direct the tax revenues raised from foods high in fat, salt, and sugar toward making healthy food more affordable and accessible to poor communities.

Example: Despite strong opposition from retailers city-wide, in May 2010 the Washington, D.C. Council added sweetened soda to those items subject to the 6 percent sales tax. The city intended to use the tax revenue to support D.C.’s Healthy Schools Act, a landmark measure seeking to improve school nutrition and increase Physical Education programs.

Regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar. Taxing foods high in fats, sugar, and salt is just one way of suppressing a sugar-high food system before it crashes. De Schutter also suggests that governments regulate junk food and fast food advertisements, especially those catered to children; provide accurate and balanced nutritional information to consumers; and adopt a plan to replace trans-fats with polyunsaturated fats in nearly all food products.

Example: In October of 2011, Denmark imposed a so-called “fat tax” on products high in saturated fats in order to repress rising obesity rates, which have led to increasing medical and social problems. Denmark has a long history of taxing unhealthy products to promote healthy diets, such as a tax on candy and a ban on trans-fats—perhaps a reason the country’s obesity rate in 2011 was 1.6 percent lower than the European average of 15 percent.

Cracking down on junk food advertising. In 2010, while the U.S. government budgeted only $44 million for its healthy eating program, U.S. companies spent $8.5 billion advertising food, candy, and non-alcoholic beverages. Much of this advertising was from agrifood companies that targeted children with ads encouraging them to consume foods high in fat, sugar, and salt. The UN report argued that this type of advertising promotes unhealthy choices at a young age and leads to a growing number of people who are overweight and suffer from micronutrient deficiencies and obesity. De Schutter called for laws that regulate and even prohibit advertisements promoting greater consumption of junk food by children.

Example: In June 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report on children, adolescents, obesity, and the media that found that the number of ads viewed by children and adolescents has an effect on obesity levels. The academy called on its readership to urge Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to implement a ban on junk-food advertising during television programming viewed primarily by children.

Overhauling misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others. The UN report argues that government subsidies that support agrifood industries selling highly processed foods must be reevaluated. These subsidies make foods high in fat, sugar, and salt cheap and accessible at the expense of fruits and vegetables, leading to a food system where it is cheaper to eat a fast-food value meal than a serving of fruits and vegetables. In developing countries, these highly subsidized agrifood companies sell these highly processed foods on local markets, which introduces cheap nutrition-devoid products to new areas and reduces opportunities for local farmers to live decently from farming.

Example: The U.S. Farm Bill is largely responsible for allocating billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize commodity crops such as corn, which is a chief staple in highly processed foods. Only a small fraction of the Farm Bill goes to funding programs that promote fruits and vegetable and healthy diets. Organizations like the Environmental Working Group are calling on taxpayers to demand that Congress use money distributed by the Farm Bill to support working farm families, encourage organic and sustainable farming, and make healthy, unprocessed food accessible and affordable.

Supporting local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh, and nutritious foods. In the report, De Schutter urges a focus on rebuilding and strengthening local food systems. Public policies must facilitate consumer access to fresh and nutritious foods and improve links between farmers and urban consumers. Governments should actively support diversifying farming systems, with a focus on smallholder farmers, and support land-planning schemes that include urban and peri-urban agriculture.

Example: In 2003 African governments endorsed the Home Grown School Feeding component of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, which aims to support the use of homegrown foods in school meal programs whenever possible. The program in Kenya targeted 590,000 students in 2012, increasing school nutrition and national food production.

Are there other steps governments should take to revitalize broken food systems? Tell us in the comments below! 

Alison Blackmore is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s food and agriculture program.

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