Industrial food and farming systems are “making people sick” and fuelling the obesity crisis, according to research published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.
IPES-Food, a think tank based in Brussels, found that many of the most severe health conditions – from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers and systematic livelihood stresses – are “closely linked to industrial food and farming practices”.
The experts identified five key channels through which food systems impact health, including environmental contamination, unsafe or altered foods, food insecurity, occupational hazards and unhealthy dietary patterns.
Mass marketing of ultra-processed foods has led to rising levels of obesity, but is just one of a number of “interconnected, self-reinforcing and complex” ways in which food systems have led to poor health, the experts said.
As well as junk food, chemical-intensive agriculture, concentrated livestock production and “long and deregulated” global commodity supply chains were also to blame.
“Food systems are making us sick,” explained lead author Cecilia Rocha. “Unhealthy diets are the most obvious link, but are only one of many pathways through which food and farming systems affect human health.”
“We must address the root causes of inequitable, unsustainable and unhealthy practices in food systems,” she added.
And urgently, given that the economic costs of modern food and farming systems have become impossible to ignore.
Total population exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals costs €184 billion ($217 billion), for example, with organophosphate pesticides accounting for more than half. Malnutrition and antimicrobial resistant infections are also costing billions – and rising.
Obesity is already estimated to cost Europe €70 billion annually in healthcare costs and lost productivity. Figures published by the World Health Organisation last week showed that the number of obese children and adolescents (ages five to 19) has risen tenfold in the past four decades.
When the social, health and environmental impacts are considered together with the costs the case for action becomes “overwhelming”, said IPES-Food co-chair Olivier De Schutter. “It is now clearer than ever that healthy people and a healthy planet are co-dependent,” he added.
But what can be done to fix a system so long in the making? Rocha and her co-authors acknowledged that building healthier food systems is a “monumental task”.
"The health impacts associated with food systems are highly diverse in terms of where they originate, what types of health conditions they are associated with, and who is affected," they wrote in their 120-page report. "However, the full picture is often lost from view, allowing the connections to be obscured and the root causes of poor health to be left unaddressed."
The scale of the challenge can no longer be used an excuse to do nothing, however.
IPES-Food, together with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, which commissioned the study, have called for “urgent reform” of current systems “on the grounds of protecting human health”.
IPES-Food identified five key leverage points for building healthier food systems: i) promoting food systems thinking at all levels; ii) reasserting scientific integrity and research as a public good; iii) bringing the positive impacts of alternative food systems to light; iv) adopting the precautionary principle; and, v) building integrated food policies under participatory governance.
In August, the World Bank suggested that scrapping subsidies for unhealthy ingredients and introducing new laws to regulate the marketing of junk food to children would help tackle rising levels of obesity.