The world now has more overweight people than hungry ones and governments should design economic strategies to influence national diets, a conference of international experts heard yesterday.
The transition from a starving world to an obese one had happened with dramatic speed, US professor Barry Popkin told the annual conference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists.
"The reality is that globally far more obesity than undernutrition exists," Popkin said, adding that while hunger was slowly declining, obesity was rapidly spreading.
There are more than a billion overweight people in the world and 800 million who are undernourished, he said at the Gold Coast convention centre near the eastern Australian city of Brisbane.
"Obesity is the norm globally and undernutrition, while still important in a few countries and in targeted populations in many others, is no longer the dominant disease."
The "burden of obesity," with its related diseases, was also shifting from the rich to the poor, not only in urban but in rural areas around the world, he said.
China typified the changes, with a major shift in diet from cereals to animal products and vegetable oils accompanied by a decline in physical work, more motorized transport and more television viewing.
But all countries had failed to address the obesity "boom," the University of North Carolina professor said.
Food prices could be used to manipulate people's diets and tilt them towards healthier options, he suggested, while acknowledging that the effects of such policies needed to be carefully studied.
"We subsidize some things, we don't subsidize others. We regulate some items. So, for instance, if we charge money for every calorie of soft drink and fruit drink that was consumed, people would consume less of it," he said.
"If we subsidize fruit and vegetable production, people would consume more of it and we would have a healthier diet."
University of Minnesota professor Benjamin Senauer used a comparative study of lifestyles in the United States and Japan to show how the costs of food and transport play a role in the problem.
Japan has one of the world's lowest rates of obesity and the US one of the highest.
"The average Japanese household spends almost a quarter of its income on food compared to under 14 per cent in the US," Senauer said.
While a direct tax on food in the US to reduce obesity would not be politically acceptable, agricultural subsidies which resulted in cheap food could be reduced.
But other factors such as exercise also played an important role, and again economic influences were involved, he said.
Source: China Daily