Industrial food production and processing ‘making people sick’

Industrial food and farming systems are generating “staggering human and economic costs”, according to a new report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

Launched at this week’s UN Committee on World Food Security in Rome, the research highlights how many of the most severe health conditions – from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers and systematic livelihood stresses – are linked to modern food production.

Chemical-intensive agriculture, concentrated livestock production, mass production and marketing of ultra-processed foods and deregulated global supply chains, all have “huge economic costs”, the think-tank said.

Malnutrition costs the world £2.7 trillion ($3.5 trillion) per year, while obesity could cost £576 billion ($760 billion) by 2025. Meanwhile, combined EU and US losses from exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals amount to £438 billion ($557 billion) per year, and anti-microbial resistant infections are already thought cost somewhere between £15 billion and £26 billion ($20 billion and $34 billion) in the US alone.

Lead author Cecilia Rocha said: “Food systems are making us sick. Unhealthy diets are the most obvious link, but are only one of many pathways through which food and farming systems affect human health.”

IPES-Food co-chair and former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter said the grounds for reform are “compelling”.

“When health impacts are placed alongside social and environmental impacts, and the mounting costs they generate, the case for action is overwhelming,” he added.

IPES-Food identified five key leverage points for building healthier food systems: i) promoting food systems thinking at all levels; ii) reasserting scientific integrity and research as a public good; iii) bringing the positive impacts of alternative food systems to light; iv) adopting the precautionary principle; and, v) building integrated food policies under participatory governance.

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