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Development, Public Health, and Nutrition

mcdchinaA study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published by the World Health Organization earlier this week reached some starting public health conclusions. The study found that the proportion of overweight and obese people increased in every country in the world between 1980 and 2013, and that nutrition-related diseases, including diabetes and pancreatic cancer, are also increasing. The report, published in the Lancet yesterday, found that globally, 36.9 percent of men and 38.0 percent of women are now overweight, increases from 28.8 percent of men and 29.8 percent of women in 1980. The study found that the fastest rate of growth in the prevalence of overweight and obesity was in the developing world. And perhaps most alarmingly, the report could not identify a single national success story—a country in which the proportion of overweight and obesity held steady or declined over the study period.

The study’s lead authors, Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, observed that, “It’s pretty grim…When we realized that not a single country has had a significant decline in obesity, that tells you how hard a challenge this is.”

It’s long been noted that economic development tends to be accompanied by a change in diets, as wealthier individuals tend to eat more meat and processed foods high in salt and sugar, and drink more sweetened drinks like soda. Urbanization also results in shifts in the types of work performed by large portions of the population, moving from outdoor physical labor (often on farms), to indoor, sedentary labor (often in offices).

If the trend observed in this week’s study continues, the benefits of economic growth in the global south could be offset by sharp increases in the cost public health necessary to treat diet-related diseases.


Good Beer and Good Water

The Reinheitsgebot, or the Bavarian Purity Law, dates to 1487 and specified that three ingredients—water, malt, and hops—and only three ingredients could be used to brew beer. While the law was amended in 1993 to permit the use of constituent ingredients like yeast, wheat malt, and cane sugar, the basic formula of water, malt, and hops, remains at the core of brewing, even as the number of brewers around the world has ballooned.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a group of microbrews in the United States has joined forces to draw attention to the problem of clean water. Dubbed “Brewers for Clean Water” and sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the group works to draw attention to the importance of protecting water supplies. The group also commits to reducing their own water consumption.

Hunger on the College Campus

downloadAccording to a new study at Western Oregon University, 59 percent of students on that campus were food insecure at least once in the previous year, leading researchers to conclude that “food insecurity seems to be a significant issue for college students.” A similar study conducted in 2009 at the University of Hawaii at Manoa concluded that 21 percent of students faced food insecurity. Nationally, the figure for all households is 14.5 percent, leading most observers to conclude that college students face a higher-than-average level of food insecurity in the United States.

The 2014 Farm Bill makes things worse, limiting students’ eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  Blogging at TakePart, Kristina Bravo noted that “Higher tuition and expenses have forced students to cut back on food, and an increasing number of youths from low-income families are enrolling—higher education has long been championed as the key to social mobility. But an empty stomach can only get you so far, and we don’t need a study to prove that.” She’s absolutely correct.

In an era of high-priced meal plans and higher tuition, the “Freshman 15” is increasinly a thing of the past. The question is, what are we doing about it?

Limiting US Food Aid

foodaidAfter much celebration of a loosening of US food aid regulations last year, we now appear to be moving in the opposite direction. About a year ago, President Barack Obama proposed reforms that would have effectively made US food aid programming more efficient, removing restrictions on requiring that US food aid be shipped on US flagged vehicles, ending the practice of monetizing food aid, and increasing the proportion of food aid provided in cash relative to the proportion provided in-kind. These reforms would have increased the amount of food aid the United States could provide by up to one-third without increasing the food aid budget at all.

But a provision tucked into a Coast Guard spending bill could undermine much of the progress promised by President Obama last year. The provision—already passed by the House and currently under consideration in the Senate—would increase shipping requirements for US food aid. Currently, federal law requires that half of US food aid be shipped on US flagged vessels. The new provision would increase the requirement to three-quarters.  The changes would both increase the cost of food aid shipments (thereby lowering the total amount of food aid that could be provided) and cause longer shipping times (thereby slowing the ability of the United States to respond to emergency situations).

The Obama Administration has worked to oppose the new requirements, noting that they would prevent aid from reaching up to two million people per year and would add $75 million to the annual cost of US food aid programming. Several international organizations, including Oxfam and the World Food Program have lined up in opposition to the measure. But the measure enjoys strong support from the shipping industry lobby, who maintain that the requirement helps to protect American jobs and bolster the country’s merchant marine, thereby contributing to national defense.

It’s always been clear that the primary beneficiary of US food aid has always been American farming and shipping interests. But the proposed reforms clearly illustrate the trade off involved here.

Open Source Seeds

seedsA group of researchers and plant breeders based at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on Thursday announced a new initiative intended to break the monopoly control over plant genetic materials promoted by the use of patent law in seed research. The current system, rooted in intellectual property law, provides a 20-year exclusive patent to seed breeders who develop a new variety. Defenders of the current system argue it is necessary to encourage and reward innovation, and to make commercial seed breeding profitable.

But critics have long argued that this system rewards commercial seed breeders at the expense of farmers, undermines in situ conservation, denies the important role played in seed breeding and conservation by farmers, and undermines innovation by restricting access to seed.

So last week, a group of seed breeders launched a new initiative rooted in the Open Source Software movement.  The idea is that the genetic material embodied in the seed should be freely available and exchangeable. The Open Source Seed Initiative  is passing out 29 new varieties of 14 different crops, including carrots, kale, broccoli, and quinoa. The seeds may be used for growing crops, saved for future plantings, and used freely in future research. It is subject to only one restriction: that any new varieties developed from the source seed must also be open source and made freely available to others to use in the same way. It’s a fascinating idea that recalls traditional practices of seed breeding and exchange by farmers around the world. And it’s one I hope takes off!


Will Wal-Mart the Savior or the Death of Organics?

Walmart-associate-produce-e1392827617943Wal-Mart, the largest grocer in the United States, yesterday announced it would increase the availability of organic produce in its stores, setting a goal of making more than 100 new natural food products in available in at least half of their stores. The move will partner Wal-Mart with 17 different natural foods suppliers, including Annie’s, Burt’s Bees, Clif Bar, and Horizon Organic. And while the expansion of the organic and natural food markets is heralded as a good thing, the entry of Wal-Mart into the organic and natural food markets raises some important questions.

Wal-Mart has a history of employing hardball negotiating tactics to force suppliers to reduce their prices, a practice which Wal-Mart defends as allowing it to pass lower prices on to consumers. But manufacturers have long claimed that the practice forces them to cut wages, lower product quality, and sometimes even forces them out of business—often to save a fraction of a cent per item.

But the natural food market has been built on the idea of crafting a premium product and charging consumers a premium price. How will Wal-Mart’s strategy of aggressive negotiations play out in the context of the premium price market for natural foods? Can natural food producers compete against one another, traditional or mainstream suppliers interested in moving into the “green” market, and Wal-Mart’s drive for lower prices (and thus lower margins for its suppliers)?

And more broadly, will organic production even be able to keep up with the increased demand from Wal-Mart? Organic, natural, and fair trade suppliers traditionally operate in a fairly small niche market, often comprising less than 5 percent of market share. And while farmland dedicated to organic production is increasing, it is not clear that it can increase quickly enough to keep pace with the anticipated increased demand for organic products from Wal-Mart.

So while Wal-Mart’s decision can rightly be celebrated as a good step in the right direction, it’s clear that we need broader discussions around sustainable food production that address deeper economic questions.

Improving School Lunch Programs

schoollunchA new study by Harvard University suggests that recent changes to the federal school lunch program are having a measurable impact, increasing children’s consumption of fruits by 23 percent and vegetables by 16.2 percent in the four low-income urban schools that were the focus of the study. The study’s lead author, Juliana Cohen, issued a statement declaring, “There is a push from some organizations and lawmakers to weaken the new standards. We hope the findings, which show that students are consuming more fruits and vegetables, will discourage those efforts.”

The new program, which began as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, has faced a number of challenges. Republican lawmakers have used the program as an example of government overreach. A study by the Government Accountability Office found that the number of students paying full price for lunch declined by about 1.2 million students (a 3.7 percent decline) as the program was instituted,  likely as a result of smaller portion sizes and increased quantities of fruits and vegetables served.

The USDA has already responded to some criticisms of the program, relaxing caps on grains and meats and permitting greater flexibility in school lunch programs. The new study will likely do little to quell the growing chorus of debate over the federal school lunch program, which has become a lightning rod for broader debates over the proper role of government in the United States. Nevertheless, the news that children are consuming more fruits and vegetables (and correspondingly less processed foods) should be welcomed.

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