A New Scourge: Unhealthy Diets

An Interview with Olivier De Schutter

Worries about ecological crisis, unhealthy diets, and the survival of food traditions – all these trends are fueling a global movement in food democracy, says human rights advocate Olivier De Schutter of Belgium.

He recently finished a six-year term as United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, observing trends and advocating policy changes to reduce poverty and heal the earth.

“Agro-ecology,” which promotes crop diversity and challenges the monocrop dominance of recent decades, is becoming mainstream, he says. Unhealthy diets now pose a graver health threat than tobacco, he argues. Junk food ought to be treated like cigarettes – regulated, taxed, and discouraged. Policy and practice should work harder together to restore the links between agriculture and health.

REFLECTIONS: What has changed around the food debate?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: In the past, the belief was that the problem of hunger could be addressed by simply boosting production, increasing volume, and reducing prices for countries that couldn’t produce the food themselves. Trade and aid would take care of their needs. That classic model is now questioned. There’s an admission that we should support poor countries not by producing for them but by helping them feed themselves, investing in their own food production, reducing their dependence on exports and aid.

Small-scale or family farms are still a large proportion of farms in developing countries. They are perhaps less efficient or competitive, but we can reduce rural poverty significantly by supporting that kind of farming.

REFLECTIONS: Will the market’s logic of efficiency tolerate smaller, less efficient operators?

DE SCHUTTER: It’s true that market incentives are working against that type of agriculture. But there’s a trade-off for competitive efficiency – the resilience of farm diversity and a reduction of rural poverty that come from supporting small-scale farmers.

Markets are artificial constructs. We can change market incentives by promoting a different understanding of efficiency. We can give less weight to the requirement of competitiveness on global markets and more weight to the need to make the best possible use of the resources we have in each agricultural region. Small-scale farmers perform well according to that scale: They are the most resource-efficient users. They produce with less dependence on machinery and fossil fuel.

The problem is, what they are best at is not what governments are used to supporting. Small farms do not export to large markets or bring in foreign currencies that governments want. Governments are not incentivized to support them. So, yes, many elements conspire against them. Nevertheless we need to convince large players that it is in the interest of resilient and diverse food systems that we do this.

REFLECTIONS: Is the number of small-scale farmers growing?

DE SCHUTTER: A World Bank report says 1.2 billion people are in family farming. That figure is relatively stable. Though a global migration to the cities continues, fertility rates are still high in rural areas, where the population therefore continues to grow in many low-income countries.

The problem is, generation after generation the parcels of land inherited and cultivated by families are getting smaller, in India and Africa for example. Beyond a certain size it becomes difficult to earn a living from it. And the smaller the parcel you have, the greater the temptation to overuse it and exploit it beyond the carrying capacity of the soil. That is happening all over the world. Currently about 25 percent of land under cultivation is degraded. There is greater competition for buying off the land, which makes it more difficult for the next generation of small farmers.

So the issue is: Should we change the rules of the game? Is it time to regulate private actors and encourage governments to do much more to protect these small farmers who are under such severe threat? I see many reasons why small farmers should be better compensated for the services they provide in maintaining eco-diversity and supporting access to diverse diets in the rural areas where they operate. If we do nothing, the stakes are stacked against them.

REFLECTIONS: Is the water crisis a very different issue, or do similar arguments apply?

DE SCHUTTER: The two are much more closely related than people may think. Both for land and water in the last 30 years, competition has become global. We see populations with widely diverging purchasing power competing for the same resources. As U.S. or Belgian citizens, you and I of course are not drinking the water that is in the subsoil of Africa or Asia directly – we are not owners of that water. Yet our consumption modes here actually use land and water from the global south that we can afford to pay for to satisfy our needs, our tastes.

For instance, most of the meat we produce in the EU is fed with soybean cultivated in the global south for our animals. The EU uses some 20 million hectares of land in Brazil and Argentina essentially to produce feed for our animals. Would this land be better used to satisfy the basic needs of the local populations rather than our taste for meat?

REFLECTIONS: How is the health debate shifting?

DE SCHUTTER: In the 1960s and 70s, the big fear was a growing population that we’d be unable to feed. So agriculture policies emphasized producing massive amounts of cheap calories. This productivist approach helped us avoid famines at the time, but it totally neglected how diets would shift as a result. We developed corn, rice, soybean, wheat, which farmers were supposed to produce as inputs for the food-processing industry. This went hand in hand with other trends – people shifting to more rushed lifestyles, and women entering the workplace, which meant there was less time spent by people cooking and therefore a greater dependence on heavily processed foods.

So today more and more people – not only in the affluent West but in emerging economies like Brazil, Mexico, India, China, South Africa – are losing their food culture and depending more on processed food. The public health impacts are massive. Inadequate diets are now as significant a threat as undernutrition (a lack of calorie availability) or tobacco or alcohol About 2.8 million people die from obesity related diseases annually. In 2010, for the first time the UN announced that the number of people who are victim of non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancers, and heart diseases was higher than people dying from infectious diseases.

REFLECTIONS: What solutions do you see?

DE SCHUTTER: Even if we subsidized healthy fruits and vegetables, that would not guarantee that people would eat more healthily – because we are forgetting how to cook. We have lost this culture of food of our parents and grandparents. Many see this as a major threat. I’ve called for a policy instrument that would do for junk foods what we did for tobacco – regulate, discourage, tax. We should warn the public against food that is unhealthy and produces illness.