Climate change, obesity, and undernutrition are part of the same problem: All you need to know

On Monday, January 28, 2019, a leading British medical journal, The Lancet, published a new report linking three global pandemics––undernutrition, climate change, and obesity––and said that they are “rising because of common reasons” such as unsustainable food processing and ineffective government policy. The Lancet Commission on Obesity is made up of a group of 43 authors who are experts in the fields of public health, climate science, and government policy. Together, they studied the impact of these three interrelated health risks in 14 different countries, including India, and came to the conclusion that “Obesity, malnutrition and climate change together are actually a complex ‘syndemic’”.

What does the Lancet report say?

The Wire reports that the Lancet Commission originally intended on studying obesity, however, upon further research, found that climate change, malnutrition, and obesity impact each other simultaneously as they continue to rise as serious global issues.

The Wire explained that high-income countries’ food processing practices like packaging and cattle rearing are not only harmful for the environment but also contribute to high rates of obesity because they promote unhealthy diets. CNN reports that over two billion people, including children, who are overweight suffer from ailments like diabetes, among other diseases.

On the other hand, low-income countries shoulder the burden of malnutrition triggered by food insecurity, which is a result of climate change and extreme weather conditions. According to the UN, in 2017, world hunger increased and left 815 million people “chronically undernourished.”

Essentially, The Lancet report says that while two of the biggest health problems for humans, obesity and malnutrition, seem like polar opposites, they stem from a common source– climate change.

How does this impact India?

While it may seem at odds, Indians are at risk for both, obesity and malnutrition because of high levels of income disparity. The report claims that undernutrition eats about 11% of the GDPs in Asia and it’s not difficult to see how.

Last year, India alone accounted for 38.4% of global stunting and 21% of wasting in children. The National Family and Health Survey data states that 36% of children under five are underweight. In fact, an Indian child under the age of five is twice as likely to be chronically underweight than in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum, obesity has become a national health risk that needs immediate attention, as well. CNN says that the Obesity Foundation of India “blames the prevalence of television commercials promoting unhealthy foods and poor eating habits.”

Research shows that of the Indian children in classes 10 to 12 who are enrolled in public schools, 33% of them are obese. Even in rural India, the rates of obesity have grown from 2% in 1989 to 17.1% in 2012. CNN also reports that India is on track to become the “diabetic capital of the world” by 2025.

From increasingly sedentary lifestyles brought about by machines and automation to the easy access to fast and sugary food, obesity and related health risks like heart ailments, diabetes, and cancer are a growing concern in India.

To compound these issues, the rapid pace of climate change is an annual $9-10 billion burden on India. The agriculture ministry said that the productivity of major crops could reduce by as much as 10-40% by 2100 unless farming practices adapted to the changing climate. This reduced capacity to produce enough food could become a financial worry because India will need to look to importing from other countries.

How can we begin to tackle all these problems?

According to Newsweek, The Lancet “not only urges international bodies to engage with climate change, obesity and malnutrition as a single problem, but further recommends significantly changing how corporations operate.”

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, says that the “business model of large international food and beverage companies that focus on maximising short-term profits leads to overconsumption” needs restructuring.

In all fairness, India has a number of public nutrition programmes like the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme, Mid-Day Meal Scheme, and Maternity Benefit Programme. However, government spending on public health and nutrition has declined in the past four years and these schemes have suffered deep budget cuts, as well. Granted, India spends an enormous Rs 2.98 trillion on nutrition programmes, but this amount is “woefully inadequate if we take into account the level of deprivation,” says Livemint.

So unhealthy food systems continue to grow because the government is “single-focused on economic growth” rather than holistic socio-economic development. The added lack of effective policies addressing climate change in India exacerbates the damage done by pollution, poor waste management, and unsustainable farming.

However, to solve these problems effectively, policy makers must formulate policies that address them collectively, not as separate, unrelated problems.

Professor at Public Health Foundation of India Shifalika Goenka said, “We are already late, sitting at the pinnacle and action is needed at the national level as well as ground level.”

Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius

Climate ChangeIndian GovernmentmalnutritionPublic health