The Obesity Paradox: An Excerpt from Nourished Planet

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The following is an excerpt from Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System, published by Island Press in June of 2018. Nourished Planet was edited by Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, and produced with support from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.

Although the world produces enough food to feed its entire population, the imbalance in food access has continued to expand over the past decade, creating a revealing paradox: The world is both underfed and overfed. There are 2.1 billion obese or overweight people in the world, in developing and industrialized countries alike. At the same time, at least 815 million people around the globe are hungry. In the United States, more than 30 percent of the population is considered either obese or overweight, and obesity now affects 70 percent of Mexico’s population. Even in India, the poster child for world hunger, 17 percent of adults are obese. The growth in obesity has been accompanied by a surge in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and type 2 diabetes. Besides the obvious health consequences of this situation, there are its dire financial effects: Treating disease will cost US$30 trillion globally between now and 2030. Ironically, those who are obese are often also malnourished because their diet is based on starchy, processed foods that can be high in fat and sodium and low in nutritional content.

Food insecurity as a cause of obesity and poor public health can be explained in several ways. First, food-insecure people often can afford only cheaper, calorie-dense foods, which tend to cause weight gain. Second, people often overeat after periods without enough food. Third, fluctuating eating habits can confuse the body’s metabolic system and cause weight gain even when people aren’t eating more calories.

The coexistence of vast numbers of malnourished people and the quantity of food produced worldwide creates a revealing paradox, disproving the popular belief that hunger can be resolved by simply producing more food. Revolutionizing the food system as we know it is the solution. Kostas G. Stamoulis, a senior economist at the UN’s FAO, states, “The way we manage the global agriculture and food security system doesn’t work. There is this paradox of increasing global food production, even in developing countries, yet there is hunger.” By examining the structural issues of the imbalances in food access, advocates can create better solutions.

Several structural issues underlie the global imbalances in food access, but the primary one is poverty. As of 2013, 10.7 percent of the world’s population was living on less than US$1.90 a day. In addition, the world’s population is becoming more urban, and by 2016, 54.5 percent of people, or more than 4 billion, were living in urban and peri-urban areas. This means that the rest of the population, or roughly 3.4 billion people, are living in rural areas. Many of them are poor, and most of them, ironically, are farmers.

Although some advocates for the poor call for more equal distribution of wealth or the establishment of higher minimum wages or living wages in the fight against hunger and poverty, economic growth through farming and agriculture represents a real and sustainable solution. The critical targets in the battle against inadequate nutrition—an increase in wealth and a more equitable distribution of that wealth—are among the best but least known economic tools for addressing these problems. According to the “World Development Report” published in 2008 by the World Bank, any percentage-point increase in the GDP generated by the agricultural sector is twice as effective in terms of reducing poverty as equivalent growth in other sectors.

Farming is important in the fight against poverty for two big reasons. First is the high incidence of poverty in developing countries, where agriculture is the primary source of income and employment. Second is the fact that rural populations typically possess lower levels of education and less access to alternative sources of income (such as employment in manufacturing or services). This means that the agricultural sector makes up a key element in the development of strategies aimed at improving the well-being and livelihoods of those living in rural areas.

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