You may have noticed an article floating around the web recently with the provocative headline “Eat a Carrot, Hurt the Economy? Sometimes.”
Reporter Maria Cheng went on to describe a recent study apparently demonstrating that a global initiative to promote a healthy diet could result in dramatic losses for the economies of meat-exporting countries like Brazil. It was a typical attention-grabbing over-simplification for an author writing about a very thoughtful, technically involved research paper. If you dig a little deeper, the reality is more complex, and more interesting.
Six risk factors associated with nutrition account for 19% of all deaths worldwide. In descending order, these are: high blood pressure, high blood glucose, physical inactivity, overweight and obesity, high cholesterol and low fruit and vegetable intake. Researchers and doctors are beginning to make the connection that the majority of these risk factors are caused or exacerbated by a meat-based diet. The World Health Organization, which compiled the above statistics, has started a global health initiative to encourage people to reduce consumption of animal products and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Some researchers have pointed out, however, that it’s not enough to simply recommend that people change their diet. You need to follow up with concrete policies that will address the root cause of the issue. Virtually no studies have been done about the impact of trade and agricultural policies on diet. To fill this gap, analysts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied the economies of Brazil and the UK and modeled what might happen if people followed the WHO’s recommendation: www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2810%2961352-9/f... (Free registration required to access the full text of this article).
In fact, they did find that the Brazilian economy, which is heavily meat dependent, would take a hit. But that conclusion by itself isn’t very surprising – what the study authors are really after is a description of exactly how it would be affected, for the purpose of better designing trade and agricultural policies that support a healthy diet rather than work against it.
They set the stage in their introduction by explaining how market interests (read: profit), rather than health concerns, have dominated agricultural policies since the 1980’s. Barriers to international trade have been struck down and large transnational agribusiness corporations have secured a growing monopoly on the production and distribution of food.
The sudden rise in the global consumption of sugar and saturated fat is due to the increasing reach of these agribusiness corporations and the fast food outlets that feed off them. It is virtually impossible for small farmers to compete with multinational conglomerates on price, so organic food has become a specialty niche, a luxury in a market dominated by fertilizer-fed, pesticide-doused, nutrient-depleted, processed food, loaded with empty calories, fat and salt.
It’s not enough to tell people to stop eating food that’s not healthy for them, when that’s all they can afford, and when they’re making a living supplying the industrial food machine. You have to couple that recommendation with policies that support local agriculture and small farmers.
In her article, Cheng includes a quote from Richard Smith, a professor of Health System Economics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: "We are not suggesting people not eat a healthy diet. We're just trying to point out that healthier eating can have unintended consequences. In an ideal world, we would all have a perfect diet. But it's also desirable that everybody has a job."
By not giving context, Cheng makes it sound as though Smith is recommending that governments strike a balance between physical health and economic health, as though there were some perfect middle ground from which we could continue to grow the industrial food economy and halt the rise of chronic disease simultaneously.
From my reading, however, that’s not what the authors are saying at all. One of the bulleted key messages in the beginning of their paper states quite clearly, “The transition to diets high in saturated fat and sugar is causing global public health concern, and a major global health emphasis is needed to develop and implement policies to secure a healthy diet.” Their research helps to predict the obstacles that might arise if people try to follow these guidelines, which in turn helps us to address the root cause of the problem.
Unfortunately, just as we’ve become accustomed to a diet of cheap, fast food, we’ve also become accustomed to a media diet of frothy, insubstantial stories. Cheng missed an opportunity to highlight an important study. Hopefully, those in a position to change agricultural policy are attuned to better news sources.