The United Nations (UN) has unveiled a startling revelation, asserting that the health and environmental consequences of food production are imposing a $10 trillion (£8 trillion) annual price on the world, equivalent to 10% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). A considerable portion of this exorbitant figure, estimated at $7.3 trillion, is attributable to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and heart diseases, which stem from inadequate dietary habits.
In its annual report, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has affixed a “price tag” to the concealed costs associated with the global food industry, calling attention to the profound impact it has on health and the environment. David Laborde, the director of the FAO agrifood economics division, emphasized that the relentless pressure on planetary boundaries and the crossing of these limits are emerging concerns. He asserted that while food remains central to human existence, it substantially impacts both health and the environment.
However, Laborde emphasized the necessity of approaching this debate without a high-income bias, pointing out the disregard of the costs of poverty and malnutrition. The report accentuated that current food systems exacerbate poverty in low-income nations, where numerous farmers fail to benefit fully from their produce. Traders and manufacturers often reap the profits while farmers find themselves unable to afford nutritious diets. For instance, in Uganda, approximately 70% of the hidden cost of the agricultural system is intertwined with poverty.
The FAO director anticipated that this financial burden would intensify in the years ahead, especially as countries grow wealthier and ultra-processed foods, sugar, and fats gain prevalence in diets. Laborde emphasized the adverse impact of undernutrition during childhood on an individual’s susceptibility to diet-related diseases as an adult.
A study from 2020, published in the British Medical Journal, found that childhood malnutrition or famine significantly elevated the risk of cardiovascular disease, impaired glucose metabolism, and metabolic syndrome in later life. Laborde described this combination of overnutrition (obesity) and undernutrition (stunting) as a “double burden of malnutrition,” asserting that middle-income countries are more vulnerable to unhealthy diets than high-income nations. This is because unhealthy diets can pose even more formidable challenges for middle-income countries, and reverting health issues is far more complex than prevention.
Historically, non-communicable diseases were viewed as issues primarily affecting affluent nations, while low- and middle-income countries focused on combating infectious diseases such as HIV. However, the tides have turned, with 74% of global deaths now attributable to NCDs, with 77% of these fatalities occurring in low- and middle-income nations.
Liz Arnanz from the NCD Alliance highlighted that industries often support unhealthy products, and growing economies, particularly those with less stringent regulations, often become new markets for these industries. For example, the alcohol industry is aggressively targeting African countries. Nevertheless, many middle-income countries are actively addressing the threats posed by unhealthy foods and products. In Latin America, where 70-85% of deaths are due to NCDs, the region has emerged as a global leader in implementing preventive policies, which include taxing sugary drinks and junk food.
While solutions to alleviate the health and environmental costs of food production are multifaceted, increasing food prices and expecting the market to resolve the problems is not a universal solution. The FAO intends to outline potential solutions for improving global health in the following year.