Global health and environmental cost of food industry is $10 billion a year – UN

by Ella

The annual report by the United Nations (UN) has shed light on the staggering global costs associated with the food production industry, amounting to a jaw-dropping $10 trillion (£8 trillion) annually, equivalent to 10% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). These costs encompass the detrimental impacts on both public health and the environment.

The primary contributors to these costs, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), are diet-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, which collectively account for a substantial $7.3 trillion. The UN’s report highlights the profound economic implications of these often-overlooked factors.


“In the last [few] years, people have realized planetary boundaries have been put under pressure and, in many cases, crossed,” emphasized David Laborde, director of the FAO agrifood economics division. He went on to state, “While food is central to our life, it also has a significant impact on the environment and health. Assigning them a value is one way to quantify these different impacts.”


However, Laborde urged a balanced perspective, reminding the public that the consequences of poverty and malnourishment often remain underreported in global debates. He stressed that the financial burden on low-income countries has been exacerbated by current food systems, where many small-scale farmers do not reap the full benefits of their produce, leading to impoverished conditions that hinder access to nutritious diets.


The report underscores how the hidden costs of agricultural systems are inextricably linked to poverty. For instance, in Uganda, these hidden costs amount to a staggering 20% of GDP, with a substantial 70% directly attributable to poverty.


Furthermore, the FAO’s director expects these financial burdens to escalate in the coming years as countries experience economic growth and ultra-processed foods, sugar, and fats make up a more significant portion of diets.

Laborde drew attention to a critical aspect of this dilemma, commonly referred to as the “double burden of malnutrition,” which combines overnutrition (obesity) with undernutrition (stunting). He emphasized, “High-income countries do not have problems like these.”

The UN report urges middle-income countries to confront the issue of healthy diets head-on and prioritize prevention, as individuals who experience malnutrition during their formative years are more vulnerable to diet-related diseases as adults. A 2020 study published in the British Medical Journal highlighted the long-term health risks, including cardiovascular diseases, glucose metabolism issues, and metabolic syndrome, for individuals who endured severe malnutrition or famine during their childhood.

These non-communicable diseases (NCDs), previously considered a problem primarily affecting wealthier nations, have now become a significant global concern. An astonishing 74% of worldwide deaths are attributable to NCDs, with 77% of these occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

Liz Arnanz, representing the NCD Alliance, emphasized that unhealthy products often have powerful industries supporting them, targeting growing economies with minimal regulation or enforcement capabilities. In many cases, industries such as alcohol aggressively market their products in African countries.

Nevertheless, Arnanz noted that several middle-income countries have adopted proactive measures to counter the influx of unhealthy foods and products. For instance, Latin America, where NCDs are responsible for 70-85% of deaths, has emerged as a global leader in implementing preventative policies. She cited Colombia’s recent introduction of taxes on both sugary drinks and junk food as a robust stance in comparison to many affluent nations.

In conclusion, reducing the health and environmental costs associated with food production is a complex endeavor that does not lend itself to universal solutions. Laborde cautioned against oversimplification and emphasized that multifaceted strategies, ranging from education to school feeding programs, are needed to address these critical issues.

The FAO is poised to release comprehensive solutions for global health improvement in the near future, emphasizing the urgency of tackling the interconnected challenges of public health and environmental sustainability.



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