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How America Is Making the Whole World Fat and Unhealthy

We've exported the worst of our food to developing countries and we've imported the best of their food -- making poorer countries even more worse off.

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American Amy Lint, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya who now lives there, notices even her rural neighbors moving away from healthful, traditional foods toward white bread and margarine, heavily sweetened tea, and cooking oil. In the past, greens might be cooked with milk, but now they are made with store-bought vegetable oil. She and her husband Malaki Obado, co-founders of the non-profit Grow Strong, are working to help connect local farmers who grow sesame with a market for sesame oil so that the cooking oil at least comes from a local, sustainable source and the profit will stay in the community.

Promoting healthful, homegrown traditional foods is fighting an uphill battle, when so much of the world sees processed and packaged junk foods as "modern" and desirable. People in poor nations often view themselves as "backward," and growing one's own food is part of their perceived backwardness. Such an attitude makes marketing an easy task for processed food corporations, especially when their target is an uneducated population that has been told throughout centuries of colonization that foreign ways are superior to their indigenous customs.

So what should be done about the "obesogenic" global food system, according to De Schutter? He begins by endorsing taxing junk food, particularly soda, an idea that has been controversial in the United States but is already practiced in France, Denmark, Finland, and Hungary. To prevent a junk food tax from disproportionately harming the poor, De Schutter recommends using the tax revenues to make healthy foods less expensive.

De Schutter also calls for "revising" agricultural subsidies that are biased in favor of large grain and soybean producers and the livestock industry; "cracking down on junk food advertising;" growing local food systems by linking farmers with nearby urban consumers; and "regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar." He specifically calls out marketing of infant formula, a major problem in poor nations where dishonest advertising and predatory marketing such as handing out of free infant formula samples in hospitals influences mothers, often women who can ill afford the cost of infant formula let alone the health consequences they cause for their children later in life, to stop breast feeding prematurely.

An issue more relevant to the United States is the marketing of junk food to children. In the last few years, the Obama administration attempted to impose voluntary measures on industry to halt marketing of the most unhealthy foods to children, but the power of industry defeated even Obama's voluntary guidelines -- let alone binding regulations. Meanwhile, as De Schutter points out, the U.S. budget to promote healthy foods is dwarfed by the amount spent on junk food marketing.

For the highly individualistic United States in which right-wing political figures -- egged on by industry -- complain about "nanny states" and "food police," a first step might be recognizing that unhealthy diets are caused by more than just individual choice. De Schutter states, "These avoidable deaths are often attributed to lifestyle choices -- choices to exercise less, choices to consume more salt, sugars and fats. But the problem is a systemic one. We have created obesogenic environments and developed food systems that often work against, rather than facilitate, making healthier choices."

The cost of waiting for individuals to repair a problem that is systemic is paid financially as well as in human misery. For example, in the United States, "direct medical and indirect expenditures attributable to diabetes in 2002 were estimated at US$ 132 billion, more than doubling the total healthcare costs for that year."

But as big as the problem is in the United States, Americans and the populations of other wealthy nations are relatively fortunate. The U.S. has a strong state, capable of enforcing its laws, as well as a sophisticated -- if expensive and insufficiently accessible -- healthcare system. Comparatively, developing nations often feature weak states, where citizens do not even expect the laws to be enforced, and healthcare infrastructure -- particularly in rural areas -- is minimal. If the U.S. cannot succeed in reversing its unhealthy food system, how can far weaker and poorer governments do so? 

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