Obesity, undernutrition, and climate change represent a synergy of epidemics, or “the Global Syndemic,” that together pose the greatest risk to humanity worldwide, according to a new report by the Lancet Commission, a group consisting of dozens of scientists spanning a range of fields.
The report argues that these global crises are linked by prevailing modes of agriculture, transportation, and land use. Because of their combined nature, progress on any one of these issues will necessarily yield progress on the other issues, and there are concrete changes that can be implemented for immediate results.
For example, the report encourages countries to shift the $500 billion in subsidies that currently go toward beef, dairy, and other industries to sustainable agriculture and production. Similarly, the $5 trillion in subsidies that go toward fossil fuel production globally should be shifted to the development of renewable energy.
“What we’re doing now is unsustainable,” said William Dietz, an author of the study and public health expert at George Washington University, in a conference call with reporters, according to Reuters.
“The only thing we can hope is that a sense of urgency will permeate,” he said. “We’re running out of time.”
The Lancet Commission on Obesity follows another report by the organization that promotes a science-based diet that would significantly mitigate climate change, provide more food to more people, and improve health outcomes globally.
This latest commission drills down into the global effects of obesity, which the authors argue is linked to many problems that are ravaging the planet through a global food system that prioritizes unhealthy, resource-intensive products.
For example, as countries around the world produce and consume more meat, more land is being dedicated to livestock and other animals, which accelerates deforestation and diminishes available water supplies.
Globally, soil quality is degrading from industrial agriculture and water sources are drying up and being polluted, two trends that threaten the ability to cultivate food in the future. Similarly, climate change is making areas that were once home to thriving agriculture desolate, threatening the very existence of certain crops.
Another sign of the dysfunctional nature of the global food system is the amount of food that’s produced, but not eaten. Globally, a third of food produced is wasted, which costs countries more than $1.3 trillion annually, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. If a portion of this food were better managed, then world hunger could be solved.
In 2018, more than 815 million people lived with chronic hunger and numerous countries are grappling with crises of starvation.
On its own terms, obesity is a major global health crisis, according to the report, and costs the world $2 trillion in health care costs annually, more than the costs of smoking or armed violence and war. Obesity puts a person at a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, among various other health complications, according to the World Health Organization.
By 2025, 2 to 7 billion people are projected to be overweight or obese.
However, the authors stress that obesity often occurs for reasons outside of a person’s direct control, including food accessibility and conflicts of interest in the food industry, and stigmas surrounding the medical condition intensifies the problem.
“People with obesity are often blamed for their disease by being prejudged as stupid, ugly, unhappy, less competent, sloppy, lazy, and lacking in self-discipline, motivation, and personal control,” the report says. “Bias might also account for the lack of recognition of obesity as a serious medical problem that deserves care. Holding people responsible for their obesity distracts attention from the obesogenic systems that produce obesity.”
The authors of the report lay out numerous ways for dealing with the Global Syndemic, including pursuing more sustainable agricultural systems, preventing private companies from influencing health and food policies, and expanding access to health care.
“Our health, the health of our children and future generations, and the health of the planet will depend on the implementation of comprehensive and systems-oriented responses to the Global Syndemic,” the report says.