‘Control industry excess’ to tackle obesity, malnutrition and climate change, researchers urge

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Do food industry lobbyists have too much sway over food regulation? ©iStock/Droits d'auteur  Duka82
Do food industry lobbyists have too much sway over food regulation? ©iStock/Droits d'auteur Duka82
The authors of a new international report have called for “strong global actions” to curb “food industry excess” and develop a holistic response to obesity, malnutrition and climate change.

The Lancet Obesity Commission report argued that to address these three “interconnected pandemics​” leaders must take a “hard line​” against “powerful vested interests​” by overhauling regulations and economic incentives within the food system.

The Commission also recommended that all countries enshrine in law an overarching ‘right to wellbeing’, which would include the existing human rights, along with a new right to a healthy environment.

The Lancet Commission on Obesity is a partnership between The Lancet, a weekly medical journal owned by Elsevier, George Washington University, the University of Auckland and the World Obesity Federation. The latest report is the result of a three-year project by 43 public health experts from 14 countries.

This latest report follows last week’s publication of the controversial Lancet-EAT Commission​, which claimed to deliver science-based targets for a healthy and sustainable diet. Recommendations included a steep reduction in meat consumption and lower dairy intake and were met with a mixed reaction from the food sector.

Call for joined up policy

Professor Boyd Swinburn from the University of Auckland co-chaired the report. He noted that malnutrition in all its forms, including undernutrition and obesity, was “by far​” the biggest cause of ill-health and premature death in every country globally.

“Obesity, undernutrition and climate change are usually viewed as separate, but we show that not only do they share many key drivers, they fuel each other via multiple feedback loops,​” he suggested.

The interconnected nature of obesity, undernutrition and climate change represents an opportunity for policy makers to implement shared solutions, Professor Swinburn continued. “These double-duty or triple-duty actions, as well call them, focus on the underlying causes rather than the symptoms to create multiple wins.”

The report’s recommendations include:

  • A new global treaty on food systems – similar to existing ones on tobacco control and climate change - to mobilise national action for healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems and to restrict the enormous influence of the food industry in government policy making.
  • Re-directing subsidies towards healthy and sustainable foods and energy. “Globally, the food and fossil fuel industry receives over US$5 trillion per year to produce products that damage health and/or the environment,”​ Swinburn argued.
  • A global philanthropic fund of US$1 billion to support social movements demanding policy action. “This will help to break the current policy inertia by shifting the balance of power in political decision-making towards citizens and away from large corporations,”​ Swinburn suggested. 
  • A ‘7-generations fund’ to research and apply indigenous and traditional knowledge and worldviews on living well within and nurturing our environments. This is based on the principle of the Iroquois Nation of making decisions today for seven generations ahead.

Food industry demands ‘seat at the table’


Balking at the link made between the food and tobacco industries and the suggestion that the food industry exerts an undue influence over policy decisions through lobby groups, industry organisation FoodDrinkEurope (FDE) issued a somewhat terse response to the report.

FDE said the conclusion that “vested commercial interests”​ should be “excluded from the policy table​” was at odds with the approach taken by the United Nations, which supports “meaningful engagement​” with the private sector​.

“It is clear that no single actor can solve the global societal challenges of obesity, undernutrition and climate change on its own. The European food and drink industry is taking on these challenges in a context of having to produce more food to meet higher demand from a rising global population, against a background of less available land, water, energy and effects of global warming,”​ FDE said in a statement.

According to the industry body, the European food sector is taking an active role in tackling these issues. FDE flagged that in various EU Member States, food makers and public authorities have developed agreements on product reformulation as well as codes governing marketing practices to children. The European food sector is also active in the area of tackling food waste, FDE stressed.

“It is our firm belief that only by working together can we make a difference. Joining forces with other stakeholders including governments, food chain suppliers and NGOs, Europe’s food and drink industry has already proven its active contribution to the fight against malnutrition and diet-related NCDs, and the shift towards more sustainable food systems.”

'We need to change the terms'

Professor Corinna Hawkes, director of the centre for food policy at City University London and co-author of the report, insisted that more stringent action is needed to stimulate change and curb the “excesses”​ of the food industry.

“We have to act broadly and deeply if we are really going to change the system that influences how the world eats,”​ Professor Hawkes insisted. 

“The reason the food industry needs attention is it encourages over consumption,”​ she told this publication. “We need to change the terms on which food companies compete.”

online advertising, advergame, child marketing, Copyright PedroPlaya
'Just ban it': marketing unhealthy food to kids should not be allowed, Professor Hawkes argued ©iStock/PedroPlaya

Professor Hawkes believes that a “small number of regulations”​ would achieve this, including taxing unhealthy foods, restricting marketing, controlling product placement in store and mandating “clear warning labels”​ for unhealthy foods.

According to her assessment, the food sector exerts too much influence over policy decisions and acts to block the introduction of regulations designed to change dietary behaviours. “We have a problem with the industry being too big. We have too few large companies and that means they make profit in certain ways and lobby against activities that they see as threatening their profit margins. The influence that they have is quite considerable.”

Professor Hawkes does see a role for the food industry in developing “new economic and business models”​ that prioritise nutritionally dense products. To accelerate innovation and strengthen reformulation efforts, investment is required from 'big food'. 

“There needs to be an effort made to reduce the availability of HFSS food at the same time as investing in alternatives which are healthier and can also yield some social benefits.

“It is important to have the industry in the room but the decision making power where we need to restrict the excess of the industry should lie with regulators. When it comes to marketing to kids, just ban it. You don’t need to have a conversation with the food industry.”

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