Food subsidies are damaging health

December 01, 2005

Overproduction of food in rich countries is fuelling health problems worldwide, argues a public health expert from Sweden in this week's BMJ.

Globally, we are producing more food than the population needs, writes Professor Liselotte Schafer-Elinder. Subsidising overproduction in developed nations is leading to excessive consumption and obesity. It is also undermining agriculture in the developing world, hindering the eradication of hunger and poverty.

The dairy sector in the European Union is an example of how agriculture subsidies can lead to negative health effects in Europe as well as in developing countries.

Surplus milk is converted to storable products and export subsidies are granted in order to dispose of it. These undermine the milk sector in many developing countries, which has an important role in alleviating poverty and malnutrition. Surplus butter is then sold with subsidies to the food industry, which turns it into energy dense foods such as ice cream and cakes, fuelling the obesity epidemic in many developed nations.

The World Health Organisation has noted this problem. Its global strategy on diet, physical activity, and health advises member states "to take healthy nutrition into account in their agricultural policies."

As long as the supply of energy dense foods is not reduced, the prevalence of obesity and social inequalities in health is likely to continue to increase, warns the author. As a first step to reverse this trend, agricultural market support promoting the overproduction of food has to be phased out.

But even if subsidies are phased out, global supplies will probably continue to be higher than "healthy" demand for many years to come, she adds. Therefore, as a second step, internationally binding conventions like the one on tobacco are needed.

These should include issues such as marketing of energy dense foods, availability to children, labelling, and tax and price measures.


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