The World Bank recently published a fascinating and important new report on global trends in food, diet and health, with a focus on the rise in obesity in poorer as well as richer countries. In the World Bank report, the authors note that there are 7,000 food crops which have been used for worldwide diet and nutrition. However, 50% of the entire world’s total nutrition comes from just 3 crops: Rice, Wheat and Corn. These 3 crops have formed the foundations of different regions and civilizations for millennia. Modern agronomic forces have also led the increased dominance in these crops, including their primacy during the Green Revolution as production and on-farm productivity skyrocketed. These 3 crops have also garnered the lion’s share of all research projects and funding, with corn alone receiving 45% of research funds. Additionally, these 3 crops are core components in much of the world’s processed and packaged foods. There is also a price-related imbalance between these 3 crops and the hundreds of other foods, in which the efforts given to the 3 major crops have led to price declines, whereas the other crops not benefitting from research and support have become relatively more expensive. This imbalance, in turn, leads to greater consumer purchase of rice, wheat and corn and less purchasing of legumes, fruits and vegetables.
What the World Bank report notes is that the traditional two leading deficiencies in diet in poorer countries, under-nutrition (too few calories) and a shortage of micronutrients, have now been joined by a new phenomenon of over-nutrition (too many calories), obesity and overweight populations. Indeed, in some poorer countries, part of the population is under-nourished while another part is overweight. There are even situations in which children start out as malnourished but become overweight over time. Obesity is no longer a “rich country’s” disease; populations throughout the developing world are also experiencing increases in overweight and obese adults and children.
In many regions, traditional diets that formerly utilized dozens of local nutrient-rich legumes, vegetables and fruits have been supplanted by highly processed packaged foods made from (unsurprisingly) rice, wheat and corn. Additionally, these processed foods have introduced higher levels of unhealthful ingredients into the diet such as saturated fats, hydrogenated oils, sugars, sodium, refined flour and other starches. These foods also have lower levels of micronutrients and less fiber than more traditional diets. In these regions, there has been a narrowing of the overall complexion of the diet and an intensifying of the calories and consumption of highly-processed foods.
The result of this change is the growth of non-communicable, diet-related conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, lack of exercise and mobility and poor joint health. These problems have risen during the same period when rates of absolute starvation and malnutrition have decreased due to greater overall food access and the benefits of the Green Revolution. However, on a worldwide basis, diet-related diseases are the third-highest social cost on society, behind only smoking and the conditions of violence including wars and terrorism. More than 2 billion people globally are overweight, and over 640 million are obese.
Amid the enormity of these challenges, the individual might feel ill-prepared to make any meaningful difference. However, there are many actions at all levels which are both available and necessary for positive change to occur. Each of us can and should be aware of and supportive of diet improvement efforts occurring at the international level, where the World Bank report recommends several solid action steps to help improve the diversity and health of the diet:
· More international support and research focus for high-quality, under-served foods such as legumes, vegetables and fruits
· Improvements in the storage and transport systems of these under-served foods to improve their availability while lowering their cost in poorer regions
· A change in research focus away from purely looking at yield (kg and calories) to overall nutrition, measuring yield + calorie density + vitamins + minerals + fiber
· Engage the private sector to increase focus on development of higher-quality, under-served foods
· At the governmental level, change the structure of subsidies and price support policies so that a broader range of food groups is supported rather than just a few high-yield cereal crops
The report highlights several large international food companies, including Unilever, Nestle and Group Danone, for the efforts in building a better food system to improve the lives of people in developing and poorer regions. These efforts include:
· Unilever has implemented a strong Nutrient Profiling System against which the global product portfolio is checked for levels of key nutrients
· Nestle stands out with a clear corporate nutrition strategy that is approved at the highest levels of the company and includes a comprehensive set of objectives that cover: a) the reformulation of products to make them healthier; b) access to healthy foods; and c) responsible marketing
· Group Danone includes nutrition goals in its business strategies as well as its processes. The company’s focus includes having affordability considerations in its product R&D programs and for its stakeholder engagement
The challenge of obesity and the health of the diet affects all regions and populations, including domestically in North America. For us in the U.S. food industry, there are a number of tangible and implementable steps that we can take to do our part to help improve diets. Among these steps are:
· Continue to develop healthier new foods which incorporate legumes, vegetables and fruits along with high fiber and elevated nutrient levels
· Work to reduce the levels of unhealthy ingredients such as excess sugar, sodium and saturated or trans-fats
· Use communications to build greater consumer awareness of the importance of a diverse and healthy diet
· Support the expansion of farmer’s markets and other systems that increase availability of local and regional foods
· Focus on longer-term needs, not just short-term deliverables, and work to build a truly robust, resilient and sustainable food system that will nourish and support our children and their children
Creating a healthy, diverse and sustainable food system, supporting a healthy diet, is one of the biggest of the "really big" challenges for society in the 21st century, This challenge occurs at the international level as addressed by global institutions such as the World Bank and at the closest-in local local level at the supermarket or market stall where each of us buys our food. Everyone has an investment in developing healthy foods for healthy lifestyles. If this challenge at the global level seems daunting for the individual, it might be proper to ask: "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?"