Jomo Kwame Sundaram was the Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, and received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Mar 14 2016 (IPS) — About 2.1 billion people are regarded as overweight or obese today, or almost thirty per cent of the world’s population. With over 800 million people estimated to be chronically hungry in the world, it appears that the number of overweight is more than 2.5 times the number of undernourished.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Credit: FAO

Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Credit: FAO

Last year’s Second International Conference on Nutrition, organised by the FAO and World Health Organisation (WHO) in Rome last November, was criticised for exaggerating the extent as well as human and economic burden of malnutrition. Instead, the new numbers from a 2014 McKinsey Global Institute report suggest that the Conference instead erred in the opposite direction, at least by underestimating the extent of obesity.

The last estimate from the WHO was around 1.5 billion overweight, with a third of them obese. This implies an increase of about 40 per cent over just a few years! In the UK alone, for instance, 37 per cent of the population is deemed overweight and a quarter obese.

Economic burden
The overweight, especially the obese, impose a heavy economic cost equivalent to 2.8 per cent of world economic output, or about USD$2 trillion, according to the report. The burden on healthcare budgets is rising fast because unless current trends are reversed, half the world’s adult population will be overweight, if not obese in about 15 years.

The estimates of losses include lost economic productivity, additional healthcare costs and investments needed to mitigate and cope with its impacts. The burden thus ranks together with the economic costs of armed conflict, war and terrorism and of smoking, both estimated at $2.1 trillion each.

Not only fat cats are fat
While once associated in the popular imagination and caricatures with the ‘fat cat’ rich in rich Western societies, the problem has affected lower income communities there disproportionately more. In recent decades, the scourge has been spreading rapidly in most developing countries, especially those deemed better off or middle income, mainly due to lifestyle and associated activity and dietary changes.

Led by the WHO, the United Nations now recognises obesity as an epidemic connected to various diet-related non-communicable diseases, including type-2 diabetes, various cancers and cardio-vascular diseases. About 2.8 million deaths yearly are attributed to excessive body weight.

Comprehensive interventions necessary
The McKinsey Institute report and WHO figures significantly strengthen the case for stronger political commitment, more concerted and concerted policy approaches as well as greater international cooperation to address malnutrition in all its forms, namely hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases, largely associated with obesity.

The report makes a strong case for a comprehensive intervention strategy of sufficient scale, recognising that any single ‘silver bullet’ intervention is unlikely to have sufficient impact. It considered 74 measures taken to address the problem of obesity before making its own recommendations. These include smaller fast food servings, restricting food and beverage advertising and promotion, improving information and education for consumers, especially parents, ensuring balanced, diversified and healthy meals at school and workplaces, reformulating processed foods, and requiring more exercise at school.

In early 2014, WHO halved its recommendation for sugar consumption from 10 per cent of an adult’s daily calorie intake to 5 percent — in the face of considerable resistance from adversely affected corporate interests and their government backers. The latest US dietary guidelines recently adopted the previous WHO guideline on sugar intake — a long overdue step in the right direction.

On a more encouraging note, after heading the world obesity league tables for some time, childhood obesity in the US was reduced by 43 per cent over the decade 2004-2013 suggesting that the world’s fastest growing pandemic can be reversed. This suggests that all is not lost, and that determined and concerted efforts can help reverse the spread of this new curse of excess.