Food

Total Health Costs of Industrial Food Systems Are 'Staggering,' Says New Report

Obesity alone will cost the world $760 billion per year by 2025.

Stock photo ID: 733331920 San Leandro, CA - October 12, 2017: Grocery store shelf with various brands of soda in cans. Pepsi Co is one of the largest corporations in the non-alcoholic beverage industry.
Photo Credit: Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock

new report by international experts draws significant linkages between industrial food and farming practices and many of the “severest health conditions afflicting populations around the world,” from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers and systematic livelihood stresses.

The report was released on October 9, and is titled, “Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus: Addressing Practices, Political Economy, and Power Relations to Build Healthier Food Systems.” It was produced by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and commissioned by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GAFF).

The report aims to estimate the global aggregate human and economic costs of the various ways industrial food and farming systems are making people sick. Ruth Richardson, the Executive Director of GAFF, calls the report’s conclusions “staggering” and “difficult to ignore.”

To underpin their calculations, IPES-food reviewed the available evidence in five key areas of impact: occupational hazards to food and farm workers; environmental contamination; contaminated, unsafe and altered foods; unhealthy dietary patterns; and food insecurity.

They found that malnutrition costs the world $3.5 trillion per year, while obesity alone will cost $760 billion per year by 2025. They found that combined European Union and United States losses from exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals amount to $557 billion per year, while antimicrobial-resistant infections are already thought to be incurring $20 billion to $34 billion of annual costs in the U.S.

“What is troubling is how systematically these risks are generated—at different nodes of the chain and in different parts of the world,” writes IPES-Food co-chair Olivia Yambi.

The authors found that negative health impacts are experienced unequally and that “the low power and visibility of those most affected by food systems jeopardizes a complete understanding,…leaving major blind spots in the evidence base.”

Lead author Cecilia Rocha writes, “the industrial food and farming model that systematically generates negative health impacts also generates highly unequal power relations. Powerful actors are therefore able to shape our understanding of food-health linkages, promoting solutions that leave the root causes of ill health unaddressed.”

When the terms of the debate are set by powerful actors, including the private sector, governments, and donors, “the prevailing solutions obscure the social and environmental fallout of industrial food systems,…reinforcing existing social-health inequalities,” according to the report.

The members of IPES-Food say that complexity “should not be an excuse for inaction.” “We know enough to act,” they write.

The report identifies five key leverage points for building healthier food systems: i) promoting food systems thinking at all levels; ii) reasserting scientific integrity and research as a public good; iii) bringing the positive impacts of alternative food systems to light; iv) adopting the precautionary principle; and, v) building integrated food policies under participatory governance.

IPES-Food co-chair Olivier De Schutter, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, writes “when health impacts are placed alongside social and environmental impacts, and the mounting costs they generate, the case for action is overwhelming. It is now clearer than ever that healthy people and a healthy planet are co-dependent.”

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Michael Peñuelas is a Research & Writing Fellow with Food Tank, as well as a farm hand, scholar, and community organizer based in northwest Washington State. Previously, he was a Research and Communications Intern with Food Tank. Michael graduated in 2017 with a Master’s in Environmental Policy and Management from the Stanford University School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences. He also holds a B.S. from the same program, completed with a double focus on food systems and on conservation ecology. Get in touch at [email protected], find out more about his work at www.michaelpenuelas.com, or follow him on Twitter @mmpenuelas. He was born and raised on Duwamish land.