Obese will soon outnumber the hungry 2 to 1

The world's obese now hugely outnumber those who are starving, and the gap is widening fast. What does this mean for the future of our planet's food production?

A major new report from the Red Cross has launched an attack on the scandal of world hunger. The widely respected international charity says that while there is more food available in the world than ever before and 1.5 billion people worldwide are classified as obese, there are still 925 million people who simply don't have enough to eat.

Nutrition scientists say the picture is rapidly getting worse. The number of obese will soon be double the number of starving because the percentage of obese people is going up while the percentage of underfed is going down.

Fifteen per cent of the world's population goes to bed at night hungry and three million children will die from under-nutrition this year before they are five, says the Red Cross. It says this is happening at the same time as 30% of the world's crops are wasted and 20% of the global population is seriously overweight.

Why? Part of the reason is that obesity is becoming rife in many poor countries as well as rich. The spread of sugary and fatty foods through the developing world by the huge multinational food chains has had a dramatic effect.

In Mexico, for instance, there was practically no obesity problem 20 years ago. But today over 70% of women and 65% of men in Mexico are overweight. Similar patterns are emerging in many city populations in India and China. And in Africa there are increasing numbers of people who have experienced starvation diets in their youth but consume junk diets in middle age, due to increasing living standards.

In rich countries, obesity has become a social problem, which is far worse among the poor and working classes than it is among the rich and educated. Many say it is hardly surprising when British children, for example, are targeted by 28 branded cereals, all but one of which contain more than the government's recommended amount of sugar.

Deprivation and excess

Many believe that today's society puts profits before health. Humanity has a powerful addiction to sugar and fat, and big food companies feed that addiction relentlessly in order to drive up sales and profits. As soon as people move beyond a subsistence level of living, they become targets.

Others, however, argue that the decrease in the number of people starving year by year makes it possible to predict a world without hunger in the next 20 years. They say that this is largely due to better ways of preserving, manufacturing and transporting foods around the world – which would never have been possible without the investment of the multinational food chains. The problem of obesity, they say, is a side effect that can be dealt with through better education, food labelling and price controls.

You Decide

  1. Does the world have a collective responsibility to help feed the starving?
  2. Is industrialisation the answer, or the obstacle, in the mission to feed the world?

Activities

  1. Research the daily meals of people living in different areas of the world, and compare them to your own. Globally, what would the average day on a plate look like?
  2. Make a presentation on the link between trade and hunger around the world. Highlight three man-made practices which cause food inequality, and examine possible solutions to them.

Some People Say...

“Obesity is harder to cure than starvation.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Over history, what have been the biggest killers?
As society progresses, health threats gradually change. In the past, outbreaks of certain diseases and infection killed more people, but as medicine and society advances, these become less of a threat, and new problems – like obesity, or degenerative diseases brought on by old age – become more common.
Are developing countries the worst victims of the obesity epidemic?
Yes. Culturally, developing countries might see being overweight as a sign of wealth and prestige, and there's less awareness of the dangers of over-consumption. Biologically, people used to scarcity tend to have metabolisms that are adapted to store energy whenever food comes along, so are more prone to putting on weight.

Word Watch

Red Cross
A shortened form of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, an international humanitarian organisation, formed to protect human life, health, and dignity. The Crescent, which was officially adopted in 1929, has been accepted by 33 Islamic states.
Obese
A word that means you are so overweight that it is a dangerous to your health. In practice that means being about 25% over your correct bodyweight.

Multinational
A business or company that has grown so big that it has a base in several countries. A company like Coca-Cola with factories and workers all over the world is a multinational. It owns about 300 companies in around 200 countries with one million employees.

Branded cereals
These are breakfast cereals with a ‘name’ such as Weetabix or Cornflakes. They are some of the most famous names in the western world since we grow up with them on the breakfast table for year after year. A simple bag of rolled oats would be an example of ‘unbranded’ cereal. Quaker Oats, by contrast, is a branded version of the same thing.

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