Obesity, Undernutrition, And Climate Change: The Syndemic
A syndemic is a term for two or more pandemics that occur in the same place and time and have common factors. In this article from the Lancet, a team of researchers argues for action to be taken against what they term as The Global Syndemic: obesity, undernutrition, and climate change.
For the purposes of this report, undernutrition includes stunted growth, being underweight or wasting, and vitamin deficiencies. Obesity refers to anyone with a BMI greater than 30. While climate change may not be purely a health issue like the other two, it does have massive effects on human health and is therefore included as a pandemic.
In a syndemic, the pandemics must all interact and interlock with each other, as well. For example, climate change has the power to disrupt crop yields in the developing world, which leads to undernutrition. Undernutrition in childhood has been linked to obesity later in life. Obesity increases demand for fossil-fuel heavy transportation like cars, as well as for food. This summary will focus primarily on the report’s findings and recommendations regarding the food system, though the report also emphasizes urban planning and transportation as elements of any solution to the Syndemic.
For most Faunalytics readers, it’s no secret that meat and dairy are generally the most harmful food sources for the environment. Ruminants – cows and sheep – are especially problematic because of their methane-releasing digestive processes. Animal agriculture is responsible for about 19% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and takes up about 70% of total agricultural land, much of which is dedicated to crops used for animal feed.
Meanwhile, Excess meat consumption is recognized as a major risk for health problems like obesity and high blood pressure, which in turn contribute to heart disease and cancer. Despite the environmental and health costs of these foods, they are still heavily subsidized by many governments around the world. These subsidies artificially drive down costs, meaning that in many areas, processed animal-based foods are more accessible than healthy plant-based options.
The food industry has also enlisted marketers and advertisers to exploit psychological and biological weaknesses to increase demand for their products, and has fought against regulations that could harm their bottom line. Governments have largely gone along with these moves, fearing political retribution from powerful industries. The feedback loops continue to operate, and our health and environment suffer while profits rise.
Unfortunately, these loops cannot be broken by individual willpower or self-regulation alone. Governments, NGOs, and corporations need to work together to foster a food industry that promotes human and environmental well-being. On the government side, industries that harm the environment and human health must be made to pay for the negative externalities that they produce. Carbon taxes, for example, can be used to increase prices for carbon-emitting goods, which will in turn decrease demand and therefore supply. Furthermore, food subsidies need to be shifted to environmentally and health-friendly products, rather than feed grains and animal products.
The report makes clear that their suggestions are intended to reduce the influence of large food corporations, not harm the well-being of medium or small operations. Increasing nutrition literacy among the general population and adjusting national nutritional guidelines to discourage consumption of processed and animal-based foods would also be effective.
Indeed, this report from The Lancet offers a broad range of suggestions, only some of which relate to animal agriculture. However, through reading it as a whole, it is clear that our food system needs to be adjusted in accordance with the needs of both humans and the environment. Reducing our reliance on animal products through changing subsidies, accurate product labelling, and forcing the industry to pay for their negative externalities are major steps that would help solve the Global Syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change. As animal advocates, we should push for these actions, as grassroots organization and democratic pressure is necessary for large-scale change. Business-as-usual is a path straight toward an unhealthy planet, full of unhealthy humans.