The Ubiquitous Nature of Food, Now Expanding Waistlines Around the World

    I watch my weight all the time.  I do that for a number of reasons, but mainly as I grow older it is a question of health.  In our society, you can either lose weight now or you can lose weight later.  With heart and stroke disease being one of the biggest killers in Canada, that’s just simply being realistic.  So I try to do my part and be diligent.  It is a lifestyle choice.

It is not easy partly because food is so ubiquitous in our society.  I have said that so many times.  Wherever you go in Canadian farm country, usually you celebrate with food.  Whether it is a doughnut here or a cracker there or some candy from time to time, food is everywhere, plentiful and cheap.  We find ourselves as a society eating more and more and more.  As an agricultural economist, I’m always looking for new ways in which grain demand can grow.  However, I certainly don’t want that in an obesity epidemic around the world.  Unfortunately, it might be working out that way.

I recently read a summary of a report from the British Medical Journal, The Lancet.  In this report 500 researchers from 50 countries compared health data from 1990 through 2010 examining global health trends.  It was an interesting summary in that it said that with more immunization kids were not dying from infectious diseases like they once were.  However it said that obesity rates were increasing up to 82% globally over the last 2 decades.  The only exception to that was sub-Saharan Africa.  As hard as it is for me to believe, it would seem that food is becoming more ubiquitous in so many other places.

I find that difficult to fathom because as many of you know I’m regular visitor to Bangladesh, a place where there are millions of empty stomachs and millions of people who essentially are getting smaller over time.  They lack the daily calorie intake to sustain themselves and their body mass gets smaller and smaller.  However, even in Bangladesh, incomes are rising and more snack food is more plentiful.  Ditto around the world and with that all the problems.

As food is ubiquitous in our society, so are the problems of recognizing this as an issue.  It wasn’t too long ago that our societies were much more rural and we raised our livestock, gathered our own eggs and milked our own cows.  In today’s society, food preparation has been industrialized, to the point where you can walk into a grocery store and get ready-made meals in all kinds of forms.  So we are taking in more and more calories all the time.  Waistlines are expanding almost passively without notice.  The health costs of this in the future will surely be astronomical.

From an agricultural economic perspective, the increasingly ubiquitous nature of food and the resultant obesity epidemic has been good for primary production agriculture.  As calorie demand increases all over the globe, there will be a natural increase in demand for grain.  Sure, we will see ups and down in that movement based on price but the direction is all up.  As long as the world’s consumers can eat food easily without thinking, it can only be good for international commodity demand.

Of course winning the agricultural demand war by crediting the obesity epidemic is morally offensive.  You would think one answer to this problem would be to inject some new agricultural biotechnology into our food supply to enhance human health versus expand our waistlines.  In fact, this has been tried in Asia with “golden rice” with limited effect.  In the Western developed world, our agricultural biotechnology has not even gone there, preferring to go the herbicide tolerance route to greater profits.  I’ve explained that 1 million times, so trying to break that paradigm for the good of human health is probably a nonstarter.

All this is a very complex subject because I have not even mentioned the strange economics of food.  Case in point was an excellent presentation I was in last week on a diversified beef operation in Ontario.  The farmer had vertically integrated his operation to a point where he was selling top-end steaks to an exclusive Toronto steakhouse. It was so exclusive; a steak there would cost you $300 for supper.  Its not like I didn’t know that happened, it just that I’ve never been so close to it where I could taste it.

In my dreams I think.  I’d like to say the obesity epidemic is about personal responsibility.  Needless to say, that’s not really fair.  In many ways our agricultural production system has been too successful, producing so much and distributing it so efficiently, food has become so ubiquitous, for many around the world, its like oxygen.  It’s taken for granted.

Of course not everywhere, I know.  The challenge along the way will be to stem the obesity epidemic and if that means some kind of institutional or biotechnological change in our agriculture so be it.  The hard part will be to fully recognize society has a problem.  And who knows, maybe as an agricultural industry, farmers can help.