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.
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.