Professor Sharon Friel is Professor of Health Equity and Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Governance at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet). She was Director of RegNet from 2014-2019. Sharon is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences.
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Leaders must take a hard line against powerful commercial interests and rethink global economic incentives within the food system in order to tackle the joint pandemics of obesity, undernutrition and climate change, according to a major new report by the Lancet Commission on Obesity- of which RegNet’s Professor Sharon Friel is a Commissioner. A key recommendation from the Commission is the call to establish a new global treaty on food systems to limit the political influence of Big Food.
Malnutrition in all its forms, including undernutrition and obesity, is by far the biggest cause of ill-health and premature death globally. Both undernutrition and obesity are expected to be made significantly worse by climate change.
The report follows the publication (17 Jan) of the Lancet-EAT Commission, which provided the first scientific targets for a healthy diet within planetary boundaries. Now, the new report analyses the wider systems underpinning the global obesity pandemic, and identifies solutions to address decades of policy failure.
Over the past two decades, obesity, undernutrition and climate change have been viewed as separate, and policy responses have been unacceptably slow due to reluctance of policy makers to implement effective policies, powerful opposition by vested commercial interests, and insufficient demand for change by the public and civil society. Undernutrition is declining too slowly to meet global targets, no country has reversed its obesity epidemic, and comprehensive policy responses to the threat of climate change have barely begun.
“Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories. In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth, and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes. Climate change has the same story of profits and power ignoring the environmental damage caused by current food systems, transportation, urban design and land use. Joining the three pandemics together as The Global Syndemic allows us to consider common drivers and shared solutions, with the aim of breaking decades of policy inertia,” says Commission co-chair, Professor Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland.
Led by the University of Auckland (New Zealand), the George Washington University (USA), and World Obesity Federation (UK), the new Lancet Commission is the result of a three-year project led by 43 experts from a broad range of expertise from 14 countries.
The new Commission defines The Global Syndemic as the global interactions of the pandemics of obesity, undernutrition and climate change, which are linked through common drivers and shared solutions. Driving The Global Syndemic are food and agriculture policies, transportation, urban design and land use systems - which in turn are driven by policies and economic incentives that promote overconsumption and inequalities.
Among the actions recommended, the Commission calls for the establishment of a Framework Convention on Food Systems (FCFS) - similar to global conventions for tobacco control and climate change – to restrict the influence of the food industry in policy making and to mobilise national action for healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems.
Economic incentives must be redesigned, and US$ 5 trillion in government subsidies to fossil fuel and large agricultural businesses globally should be redirected towards sustainable, healthy, environmentally friendly activities. Additionally, a global philanthropic fund of US$1 billion must be set up to support civil society in advocating for change.
“The prevailing business model of large international food and beverage companies that focus on maximising short-term profits leads to overconsumption of nutrient-poor food and beverages in both high-income countries and increasingly in low and middle-income countries. The coexistence of obesity and stunting in the same children in some countries is an urgent warning signal – and both will be exacerbated by climate change. Tackling The Global Syndemic requires an urgent rethink of how we eat, live, consume, and move, including a radical change to a sustainable and health-promoting business model fit for the future challenges we face today,” says Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet.
The report will be launched by Professor Friel and colleagues at the the Prince Mahidol Award Conference in Bangkok, Thailand held 1 - 3 February 2019.