Food price volatility and obesity – a new development challenge?

April 4, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Continuing on the ‘new development threats’ theme of yesterday’s post on Big Tobacco, the latest issue of the World Bank’s Food Price Watch looks at the links between increasing food price volatility and obesity. A blog post by the Bank’s José Cuesta starts with a nice counter-intuitive quiz (below).


The correct answers, by the way are C, B and C.

Food Price Watch report explains:

Overweight and obesity constitute a global epidemic even in a world of high and volatile food prices. The prevalence and numbers of people affected by overweight and obesity have increased in the last three decades, during both periods of low and high international food prices. So as one malnutrition problem, undernourishment, is falling, others, overweight and obesity, are increasing rapidly (figure 2). In 2008, the number offpw figure2 overweight adults was 1.46 billion, of which 508 million were obese. Even conservative projections predict truly shocking numbers in the future if current trends are unabated: 2.16 billion adults might be overweight and 1.12 billion obese by 2030. And such increases should be expected across all regions and in countries like China and India (figure 3).

As food prices remain high and, arguably, increasingly volatile, unhealthy calories tend to be cheaper than healthy ones. This is the case of junk food in the developed world, but also of less nutritious food substitutes in poor households in developing countries coping with recurrent food (and other) crises. In fact, overweight is not an epidemic restricted to rich countries. Half of the world’s overweight people live in nine countries, including the United States and Germany, but also in China, India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey. Regions with the highest obesity prevalence — exceeding 25% of the adult population — include North Africa and the Middle East, Central and South America, and southern sub-Saharan Africa.

Policy responses so far have only partially addressed the epidemic. Responses have ranged from doing nothing to punishing overweight people by, for instance, imposing fines on employers when employees exceed certain waistline limits in Japan. Taxes, outright bans, or restrictive legislation on certain foods and ingredients along with clearer standards for food labels and awareness campaigns are attempts to veer consumers toward healthier foods. Yet, it is not evident that reducing obesity is among the top global policy priorities. Nonetheless, the current multilateral discussions on the fpw 03-figure3post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (along with the UN high-level meeting on the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases) offer an unprecedented opportunity for integrating global and national collective action to fight all forms of malnutrition, from stunting to obesity. This integrated and collective action has, nonetheless, a tall order: it must help prevent this double burden — triple, if micronutrient deficiencies are considered — from increasing as the world becomes more prosperous.’

Fascinating and important, but a nightmare in terms of communications for any organization wanting to work on it!