Who should bear the cost of our health?

Last month, it was interesting to read the findings of The Lancet Commission’s Report: The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change. For the first time, these three pandemics were studied jointly.

Obesity and undernutrition are driven by the same inequitable and unhealthy food system, and by a political system that is focused on economic growth and ignores the health and equity impacts of consumers’ choices. Equally, climate change is amplified [A1] by the environmental damages caused by the current food system, transport and land use.

Unsurprisingly, the outcomes of the three are also linked. Climate change challenges land use and shifts agricultural processes, thus increasing undernutrition. It also affects the price of raw food, increasing consumption of processed, unhealthy food.

Obesity rates and greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, and the rates of undernutrition are declining too slowly to meet global targets, among which are those underlying Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals, Zero Hunger. The global interplay of obesity, undernutrition and climate change is one of the greatest threats to human and planetary health, and it affects people in every country and region.

Not that we haven’t been warned about the impact that our food system and prevalent diet has on the planet. Towards the end of last year, a major study highlighted the need to reduce our meat-eating habits, move towards a more plant-based diet and make considerable changes to our farming practices, to avoid catastrophic climate change and feed 10 billion people by 2050.

But how to address a system that promotes overconsumption, inequalities and rampant environmental degradation? There is a clear need for new, sustainable, business models, and policy frameworks that encourage businesses to take much greater account of health and environmental factors in their products and services. Indeed the Commission recommends that the scientific community, governments and business must come together to develop policies that rethink the food system, to promote responsible consumption, food and agricultural practices, and promote greater equity.

If business is to be part of the solution, then they need to stop also being part of the problem. At present, the efforts of many countries to include environmental and social principles within their nutritional guidelines is failing due to pressure from strong food industry lobbies, as well as from business working in the ultra-processed food and beverage industry. For instance, in 2016, the UK saw the Food and Drink Federation and the British Soft Drinks Association successfully delay and water down the UK Government’s obesity strategy, aimed at reducing sugar and other content in products to tackle obesity and diabetes.

Should business bear the cost of our health then? Is forcing companies to pay higher taxes the new norm? And, if so, should these be based on the size of the business, the nature of their products or both? This does seem to be an emerging trend, starting with the 2018 Sugar Tax, which forces manufacturers to pay a levy on high-sugar drinks, in an effort to tackle obesity. Further, in the UK, under various Producer Responsibility schemes, producers of certain products and packaging, in particular, assume responsibility and a proportion of costs for the collection, transportation, recycling, disposal, treatment and recovery of those products. And if plans outlined in the UK Government’s new Resources and Waste Strategy for England are anything to go by, the responsibilities and costs placed on business are only going one way.

With this in mind, forward-thinking businesses, taking account of these and consumer trends, are proactively addressing the health and environmental impacts of their products now. They’re allocating significant budgets to fund R&D into healthier products, reducing the content of sugar and additives in existing products, promoting healthier, meat-free options, investing in healthy food brands (PepsiCo and Mars), and promoting sustainable agriculture practices across their supply chain. Taking action now will not only serve reputation well and contribute to competitive advantage but will enable these businesses to avoid future costly government intervention.

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