We can and must tackle global health and environmental challenges holistically, thus benefiting from double and triple duty actions. Food and beverage corporations are unlikely to adopt environmentally sustainable approaches without strong government regulation. (In fact, they may vigorously oppose them.) In democratic societies at least, governments will most likely require broad civil society support to legislate to sustainably transform the food and beverage sector. (In undemocratic countries and in countries transitioning to democracy, there is an even greater risk that corruption will weaken government resolve.)
By David Patterson
Health, Law and Development Consultants
Disclosure: From 2009 – 2018 David Patterson was senior legal expert, health, for the International Development Law Organization (IDLO). He is now a consultant with IDLO and other health, law and development organizations
Pick the Odd One Out: Sugar, Salt, Animal Fat, Climate Change
What Are We Teaching?
At a recent dinner party in The Hague, my friends’ 14-year-old son told us how at school the kids mapped how much of the Netherlands will be flooded if there is inadequate action on climate change over the next few years. The adult conversation faltered… and moved on. But the child’s implicit plea haunts me. In fifty years, much of this country may well not be habitable.
This year two reports from The Lancet linked food, health and climate change and offered part of the solution. The reports ‘Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems’ (‘EAT Commission report’) and ‘The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change: The Lancet Commission report’ (‘Global Syndemic report’) between them recommend a fully or largely plant-based diet for most of us to improve global health and also reduce the green-house gas emissions associated with the meat industry. Importantly, the reports address the impact of current, unsustainable food systems and climate change on low- and middle-income countries. Droughts, floods and desertification caused by climate change drive up food prices and increase both under-nutrition and obesity as people shift to less nutritious, often calorie-dense foods.
The reports also identify some culprits and systemic barriers, and hence some opportunities. Crucially, the Global Syndemic report notes that many countries have failed to include environmental sustainability principles within their dietary guidelines due to pressure from strong food industry lobbies, especially the beef, dairy, sugar, and ultra-processed food and beverage industry sectors.
Yet these lobbies are corporations. Corporations are, by definition, created by law. They can be controlled, taxed, and dissolved by law. But governments won’t adequately regulate these industries without strong civil society support for tight legislative control.
Among other suggestions, the Global Syndemic report proposes an approach based on international human rights law. This move reflects the increasingly multi-disciplinary nature of the teams convened to tackle global health challenges. Similarly, a recent WHO Bulletin special issue on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) included an article on legal capacities required in NCDs prevention and control. In April 2019 The Lancet published the report of the Lancet–O’Neill Institute Commission on Global Health and Law titled ‘The legal determinants of health: harnessing the power of law for global health and sustainable development’ (‘Global health and law report’). Most importantly, the report is replete with observations about the essential role of civil society in advocating for government action on law reform for global health.
Drawing together the threads of these four reports from these two authoritative journals, it emerges that
- We can and must tackle global health and environmental challenges holistically, thus benefiting from double and triple duty actions.
- Food and beverage corporations are unlikely to adopt environmentally sustainable approaches without strong government regulation. (In fact, they may vigorously oppose them.)
- In democratic societies at least, governments will most likely require broad civil society support to legislate to sustainably transform the food and beverage sector. (In undemocratic countries and in countries transitioning to democracy, there is an even greater risk that corruption will weaken government resolve.)
Hence we need national and global civil society movements that are informed, resourced, courageous and free to advocate for sustainable food policies, including access to accurate, accessible information to inform food choices. (For example, in many countries, industries lobby hard against ‘traffic-light labelling’ that helps people identify healthier processed food.)
The internet provides a powerful platform for social organization and advocacy, but also an almost unregulated medium to market junk food, and trace and censor dissent more effectively.
So what do we say to a 14-year-old who is questioning why he should study Latin if, in 30 years’ time, he may be a climate refugee? In November 1969, the educator Neil Postman delivered a lecture in Washington D.C. at the National Convention for the Teachers of English. He called it ‘Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection.’ Postman reckoned that ‘…the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit.’
Fair advice. So, let’s stop pretending we can address climate change without transforming our diets. Let’s be straight about the profit motives of corporations, and the need for government capacity and political will to regulate them for the common good. And let’s use the common language of human rights to draw together all the civil society movements implicated in the struggle for global health, including the women’s, children’s, labour, faith, disability, indigenous, people of colour, LGBT and other groups. Above all, let’s share our vision of human and planetary health with young people over the dinner table – keeping in mind Postman’s advice!
 For example, Delta Programme 2019, measures to adapt the Netherlands to climate change in time available at https://english.deltacommissaris.nl/news/news/2018/09/18/delta-programme-2019-measures-to-adapt-the-netherlands-to-climate-change-in-time [accessed 27 May 2019]