Davos Puts Ultra-Processed Food on the Spot

notification icon 22/12/2023

It is no longer about safely, cheaply, and abundantly producing calories and proteins for a growing population. Although this concern of the global agri-food system, since World War II, has brought decisive results in increasing supply and combating hunger, the agenda of the 21st century is different. It revolves around a ‘new frontier of nutrition,’ capable of recognizing that the increasing presence of ultra-processed products in contemporary diets is the main driver of non-communicable diseases, which are the leading causes of death worldwide.

Until recently, this message came from the World Health Organization, the vast majority of nutrition scientists, and numerous consumer advocacy groups. Now, it is the most important think tank in the global business world that sounds the alarm. The World Economic Forum (in collaboration with the global consulting firm Accenture) has just released a report (https://shorter.me/hIMAv) showing that the commitment of many agricultural giants to regenerative practices is insufficient unless there is a profound transformation in the quality of what is offered to consumers.

The report acknowledges that life expectancy worldwide has increased from 61 to 73 years in the last thirty years. However, the incidence of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and various types of cancer has doubled during this period, especially in low- and middle-income countries, and the widespread consumption of ultra-processed foods is at the center of this explosion.

This is a global phenomenon with drastic consequences for inequalities. Notably, 62% of the obese population is found in developing countries. 42% of the global population cannot afford a healthy diet. In the lowest-income countries, this proportion reaches 90%. Consequently, non-communicable diseases affect those with fewer chances of receiving proper healthcare treatment.

More than two billion people suffer from a phenomenon known as hidden hunger, where obesity coexists with nutritional deficiencies (particularly in iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamin A). The World Economic Forum study also shows increasingly robust evidence linking the consumption of ultra-processed foods to depression.

The socio-environmental costs of the agri-food system (both in the ecosystem services it destroys and in the harm to human health) amount to twice the value of what this system provides to social life, according to the study’s calculations. The estimated value of global food consumption is $9 trillion annually, but its hidden costs rise to $19 trillion, of which $11 trillion are related to human health.

The revelation of the global agri-food system’s costs to human health has become possible thanks to a true revolution in nutrition sciences in the 21st century, in which the Nutrition and Health Research Center (NUPENS) of the School of Public Health at USP (founded by Carlos Monteiro, one of the international consultants for the World Economic Forum’s study) plays a decisive role. Until then, the central concern was with nutrients, their deficiencies, and the diseases that could result from them.

The change lies in examining foods based on their degree of industrial transformation. The danger is not in industrialization itself, but in the growing consumption of products that do not fulfill the diversity that the human body requires. One of the most interesting sections of the report shows that the quantity of active microorganisms in the soil is roughly the same as that found in our intestines. However, with the rise of ultra-processed foods, this diversity in the human body drops dramatically, and it is futile to try to artificially restore it through additives.

Hence, the fundamental recommendation of the report emphasizes not only diversity and the consumption of fresh products but also the valorization of cultures materialized in local culinary practices. What the World Economic Forum is questioning is a system in which human nutrition loses its ties to territories and relies on standardized, monotonous, anonymous products composed of elements not found in traditional kitchens, which impoverish not only the agricultural landscapes but also people’s health.

It is hard to find such widespread contestation of the essence of the current agri-food system, especially coming from a business-oriented think tank. The text even proposes that producers be paid based on the diversity and nutritional power of their harvests and receive support to offer products to their communities based on sustainable practices. This is the opposite of what happens today; in the United States, for example, 94% of subsidies go to only six products. In a context where extreme weather events impose increasing losses on this production concentration, global agricultural insurance expenses are expected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2030.

The industry, the study suggests, should eliminate all harmful ingredients and manufacture products that are as healthy as unprocessed ones. The path is to ‘create completely new products, reformulate existing offerings, and improve the stability of unprocessed products.’ This recommendation is particularly inspiring for products from forest socio-biodiversity that often can only reach markets if they undergo microprocessing processes to extend their shelf life.

The monotony of the global agri-food system’s days is numbered. Brazil is at the epicenter of this monotony. The question now is whether we will continue to look to the 20th century or if business, government, and association leaders will have the maturity to contribute to the emergence of a healthy, fair, and regenerative agri-food system. And this involves a significant reduction in the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the valorization of the richness of the culinary traditions of our different territories

https://valor.globo.com/opiniao/coluna/ultraprocessados-na-mira-de-davos.ghtml Translation Chat GPT

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