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.

Photo Credit: Jill Richardson

It is hardly news that the United States faces epidemic health problems linked to poor diets. Nearly two out of every five Americans are obese. But according to a press release from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, "The West is now exporting diabetes and heart disease to developing countries, along with the processed foods that line the shelves of global supermarkets. By 2030, more than 5 million people will die each year before the age of 60 from non-communicable diseases linked to diets."

De Schutter, whose work usually focuses on ending hunger, just published a new report saying, "The right to food cannot be reduced to a right not to starve. It is an inclusive right to an adequate diet providing all the nutritional elements an individual requires to live a healthy and active life, and the means to access them." In other words, the right to a healthful diet must be included in the human right to food. And, as the unhealthy diets already common in the United States spread to poorer nations, so do the health problems associated with those diets. However, unlike wealthy nations, poorer nations are not equipped to deal with the health consequences via medicine, making preventable diet-related health problems more deadly.

While the poor around the world face hunger, for those who have enough to eat in non-industrialized nations, traditional diets are quite healthy. In Kenya, for example, peasant farmers subsist on a stiff corn porridge called ugali eaten with a variety of green vegetables, beans, and perhaps some pumpkin. Peasants in Bolivia may dine on potatoes, quinoa and other grains, corn, sweet potato, and other Andean roots and tubers. Mexicans combine corn tortillas and beans to provide complete protein. A Filipino family may eat pinakbet, a stew of local vegetables flavored with bagoong, a Filipino fish sauce.

In each and every case, traditional diets are made up of whole foods, including grains, beans, vegetables, fresh fruit, and perhaps some animal products. Wild plants that an American might dispose of as "weeds" are used to provide essential micronutrients, feed families during hard times, or serve as medicines. Often fermentation is used to preserve foods and increase their nutrition, as in the case of Kenya's fermented porridge uji. Livestock enjoy diverse and natural diets, and meat is reserved for special occasions -- perhaps a chicken to celebrate the arrival of a guest, a goat for Christmas, or a cow for a wedding.

But times are changing. Visit even the most far-flung rural part of each of these nations today, and you'll find Coca-Cola advertising -- and Coca-Cola -- everywhere. Restaurants and stores in Africa display Coca-Cola-themed store signs while their menus are posted on Coca-Cola chalkboards and waiters wear red Cola-Cola aprons. In South America, you can buy a bottle of Coke out of your car window from a vendor dressed in red Coca-Cola-themed gear while you wait in traffic. If there's anywhere on earth you cannot easily buy an ice-cold Coke, it's Antarctica -- although it's very possible there are already shops selling ice-cold Coke there, too. And while other junk foods sold in each of these places may not be such recognizable global brands, they are equally detrimental to human health no matter which company makes them or how they are branded.

In his report, De Schutter gives Mexico as a particular example. Mexico, only second to the United States in the percent of its population that is now obese, once had a national diet that dietitians considered nearly perfect. In the 1967 book Campaigns Against Hunger, scientists E.C. Stakman, Richard Bradfield, and Paul C. Mangelsdorf write, "It appears that the Mexican Indians, living on the land and eating their corn, beans, and chili peppers supplemented at times by tomatoes, by the seeds and flesh of squashes, and by wild plants and weeds, may have had not just an adequate diet but a near-perfect one."

What happened? Peter Brown, an activist with the non-profit Schools for Chiapas, began working with indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico, shortly after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. By 2010, he began observing diabetes in the population he worked with, a problem the communities had never had before. De Schutter connects the dots, noting the massive investment in the Mexican food processing industry by U.S. companies following NAFTA, and the subsequent rise in the sales of processed foods at a rate of five to 10 percent annually between 1995 and 2003. It's not unheard of for parents to feed young children soda from a baby bottle in Mexico these days.

De Schutter provides a concise history lesson, describing how developing countries increased the amount of calories consumed from meat (119 percent), sugar (127 percent) and vegetable oils (199 percent) between 1963 and 2003 while industrialized nations also increased vegetable oil consumption by 105 percent at the same time. "Because the prices of basic crops went through such a significant decline, the agrifood industry responded by 'adding value' by heavily processing foods, leading to diets richer in saturated and trans-fatty acids, salt, and sugars. This, combined with urbanization and higher employment rates for women, precipitated the rapid expansion for processed foods, both domestically and through exports dumped on foreign markets," writes De Schutter.

Today, in industrialized nations, healthy foods often cost more than junk foods. "This should not be allowed to stand," writes De Schutter. "Any society where a healthy diet is more expensive than an unhealthy diet is a society that must mend its price system. This is even more imperative where the poorest are too poor to feed themselves in a manner not detrimental to their health."

Developing nations face an additional challenge, as they often "export high-quality foods, tropical fruits and vegetables in particular, to rich countries, while importing refined grains." The recent boom in quinoa is one such example. Most quinoa comes from the Bolivian Andes where indigenous peasants traditionally grew quinoa and raised llamas and alpaca for meat and fiber, respectively. With the demand in Europe and the United States for healthy, gluten-free grains, quinoa -- which is very high in protein -- became popular. Today, Bolivians cannot afford to buy quinoa, and the quinoa-growing region of the country is also the most malnourished as those who grow quinoa for export now purchase refined grains to eat. The region also faces decreased soil fertility, as farmers mine their soil to grow quinoa year after year instead of rotating crops with llama pasture to restore fertility.

Ironically, as wealthy, educated Americans strive to achieve diets rich in locally-grown, fresh, organic whole foods, many in the Global South strive to afford the very processed foods that Slow Food enthusiasts turn their noses up at. When a group of Americans complained to their Bolivian tour guide about the breakfast of white bread, Nescafe, and cake at a four star hotel in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, their guide exclaimed, "That's posh bread!" The hotel was serving foods locally perceived as upper class. Healthful Bolivian foods such as quinoa are seen by many as lower class "Indian food."

Examples like this can be found around the world. Nairobi's upscale suburb of Karen now boasts a brand new KFC, located in a ritzy mall that also has an Apple store. One piece of chicken costs a little more than US$2, more than the cost of an entire meal of kale, mung beans, and corn porridge elsewhere in the city. And while a meal at KFC might be out of reach for many, other junk foods are all too accessible and affordable.

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? 

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..