UN Expert Asks World Leaders to Crack Down on Non-Communicable Diseases

By Sheldon Yoder

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food is calling on world leaders not to miss the chance to crack down on bad diets. “Our food systems create sick people,” Olivier De Schutter said. “Failure to act decisively on this issue kills almost 3 million adults each year.”

Approximately 80 percent of non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, occur in the developing world (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

De Schutter, who is a contributing author to State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, calls for the adoption of a host of initiatives, such as taxing unhealthy products, regulating harmful food marketing practices, and standing up to the food industry.

“It is unacceptable that when lives are at stake, we go no further than soft, promotional measures that ultimately rely on consumer choice, without addressing the supply side of the food chain,” De Schutter said.

Low- and middle-income countries often face a double burden of undernutrition and overnutrition, but while these nations receive a great deal of attention for high malnutrition rates, researchers and policy makers have paid less attention to the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart, cardio-vascular, and respiratory disease, as well as type II diabetes.

Nourishing the Planet reported on last week’s seminar by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) that addressed the alarming rates of NCDs in developing nations. Once perceived as threats only to developed countries, these conditions actually afflict a higher proportion of people in poorer areas of the world, with as many as 80 percent of NCD deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

De Schutter warns against a failure to act decisively at next week’s General Assembly meeting that will attempt to map out a global response to non-communicable diseases. This is only the second time that the U.N. General Assembly will discuss a health issue in one of its high-level meetings. The first meeting addressed HIV/AIDS and produced the Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS: Intensifying Our Efforts to Eliminate HIV/AIDS,” which was subsequently adopted by the U.N. It is hoped that the upcoming summit will also bring about agreement on a strategy document to address the prevention and control of NCDs worldwide.

Globally there are approximately 1 billion overweight individuals, with 300 million of those classified as obese. Approximately 36 million people die each year from NCDs. On the other hand, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that there are 1 billion undernourished people worldwide.

Sheldon Yoder is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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