Activism in China: Q&A with Associate Wanqing Zhou

By Alessandra Seiter

Outside of the film's premiere at Vegan Hut in Beijing

Outside of the film’s premiere at Vegan Hut in Beijing

This blog originally appeared on the Our Hen House website on July 23, 2014.

Today, I’m excited to tell you about a screening tour across China of the 30-minute documentary WHAT’S FOR DINNER? Providing a unique look into the rapid growth of industrialized animal agriculture in China, the film follows various people in Chinese society—from a retired pig farm worker to a vegan restaurant owner—and examines the impacts of the country’s huge shift in food production and consumption on sustainability, public health, food security, climate change, and animal welfare.

WHAT’S FOR DINNER? is a production of Brighter Green, a public policy “action tank” on environment, animals, and sustainability, for which I’ve been fortunate enough to work this summer, in addition to my internship with Our Hen House. You may remember Brighter Green’s important work from OHH’s interview with Jessika Ava on Episode 216 of the podcast, or from Jessika’s collaborative feature with Brighter Green Executive Director Mia MacDonald on the expansion of industrialized dairy production in Asia, based on Brighter Green’s latest policy paper, “Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia.”

WHAT’S FOR DINNER? has already been shown at film festivals, conferences, and on campuses across the U.S., and in Europe, India, and Korea, but had not yet screened in China until this summer. When Brighter Green Associate Wanqing Zhou’s paper, “The Triangle: Factory Farming in the U.S, China and Brazil” was accepted for presentation at the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption in Shanghai this past June, the organization saw an ideal opportunity to release the newly completed Chinese-subtitled version of WHAT’S FOR DINNER? throughout China.

Recently, I caught up with Wanqing, the main organizer and host of the screenings:
***
Alessandra Seiter for Our Hen House (OHH): Can you explain what you’ve been doing this summer in China with WHAT’S FOR DINNER? Give us a “day in the life” of your work with the screenings.
Wanqing Zhou (WZ): I am bringing WHAT’S FOR DINNER? to different cities in China and discussing the topics of meat consumption and production, and the relationship between diet, the environment, people’s health, and food security. Jian Yi, the film’s director and Xie Zheng, the founder of the organization Don’t Eat Friends, sometimes help me host the screenings. So far, we’ve hosted twelve screenings in six cities.

A typical day during the screening tour involves taking an early morning train with Jian Yi to the next city on our schedule and having lunch with the local organizers with whom we’re collaborating. The screenings take place in the afternoon and usually last for two-and-a-half hours. We screen both WHAT’S FOR DINNER? and Vegucated, then host a panel discussion.

OHH: Why did you want to bring WHAT’S FOR DINNER? to China?
WZ: The issues discussed in WHAT’S FOR DINNER? are very relevant to China. Without the public becoming aware of them, nothing in the country can be changed. People in China are just starting to be exposed to information regarding meat consumption, pollution, climate change, and health. However, the information tends to be quite general, and there is not yet a local documentary film that illustrates the problems. I think it’s very important the Chinese people see reflections and reevaluations of animal agriculture that come from within the society, as shown in WHAT’S FOR DINNER?.

OHH: What people and organizations have you collaborated with?
WZ: We have collaborated with local and international environmental groups, media and communication companies, local community governments, vegetarian associations and restaurants, and business clubs. The most prominent among these groups include the Zhejiang Vegetarian Food Association (ZVFA), the Shanghai branch of Green Drinks, Climate Wire journalists, the Shanghai Academy of Natural Resources, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

OHH: How have attendees responded to the film?
WZ: The attendees come from all educational and cultural backgrounds—from illiterate villagers to graduates from top universities, both Chinese and foreign-born. They’re attracted to the screenings by different facets of the topic, including health and nutrition, food safety, the environment, business opportunities, and more.

People have spoken highly of WHAT’S FOR DINNER?, saying that it’s mild yet alerting, resonates with their daily life, and inspires change.

The attendees have been most interested in the discussion of health; they’ve asked if eating less or no meat will provide adequate nutrition, as well as how to differentiate between genetically modified and organic foods. Some attendees have expressed interest in or concern for the environment and food security, but individual health has been the major topic at most screening events.

OHH: What is the general attitude toward veganism in China?
WZ: Among the younger generation, more people are aware of the positive effects of being vegetarian or vegan. The abstention from eating animals used to have religious connections, such as to Buddhism, but that connection is becoming weaker these days, especially as health and environmental concerns appear.

Most meat-eaters in China over the age of 40 see not eating meat as “nutritionally deficient” and/or “extreme.” They might call a vegetarian or vegan person “unfortunate, but mentally strong,” because they would view such an individual as struggling economically, since they’re not able to enjoy the “most delicious foods.” However, only a very small portion of vegetarian or vegan people in China are in an economically difficult situation, so most vegetarians or vegans actively choose such a diet.

Most vegetarians or vegans in China view their diet as a personal choice, rather than as part of a value system. They all do it for different reasons, and they don’t want to label themselves.

OHH: Do you and Brighter Green have any plans for advocacy in China beyond the screenings this summer?
WZ: Right now, Brighter Green is encouraging Chinese civil society and journalists to participate in fact-finding tours with sites in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, organized by our partner, Global Forest Coalition. The tours will focus upon the environmental and social impacts of the production of feed for farmed animals (e.g., soy monoculture). We hope that Chinese participants will bring home what they have witnessed on a tour and provide the seeds of change. Several Chinese individuals and groups have already expressed interest in participating.

OHH: You recently presented your paper, “The Triangle: Factory Farming in the U.S., China and Brazil” at the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption (congratulations, by the way!). Could you briefly explain your paper?
WZ: In short, I tried to use “The Triangle” to illustrate the relationship between the world’s three largest meat and feed producers and consumers.

The U.S. has exported the industrialized, intensive animal production pattern of factory farming to countries including Brazil and China, along with its meat-centered “ideal” diet and fast-food culture. China is now the destination of huge amounts of animal products and feed grains. This puts pressure on the world’s largest producers of such products, including the U.S. and Brazil. Brazil is especially important because large areas of rainforests and savannahs are being cleared to grow crops in order to meet growing demand for meat and feed. The Amazon rainforest is not only home to a vibrant ecosystem, but is also of great global importance as a carbon sink, a storage unit of sorts for biodiversity and biomass, a resource provider, and a climate regulator.

The appearance, adoption, and expansion of factory farming practices in these three countries represent the relationship between humans, our food, and the environment—one in which we have believed for the past 50 years or more. This relationship considers humans as the dominators and controllers of all natural resources, and believes that all species and environments—to be of value—should serve humans.

To respond to the expansion of the poorly-regulated factory farming system and the trend of growing animal consumption, we need the majority of the people—especially those who live in cities, in the case of China—to be aware that the over-consumption and over-production of animal products is not adaptive to the environment. Individuals, businesses, and social groups need to act first and lay the foundation for change, and policy will catch up with them.

OHH: What inspired you to get involved with Brighter Green?
WZ: I first got to know Mia MacDonald—the Executive Director of Brighter Green—and her organization during a screening event of WHAT’S FOR DINNER? and Vegucated in New York City. I had been interested in the food-climate nexus for some time and thought Brighter Green’s work was very relevant. I also thought that more people, especially in China, should hear about the issues on which Brighter Green focuses, but I never thought I could be the one to bring WHAT’S FOR DINNER? back home! It’s been a great experience and I have enjoyed every minute of it.

Follow Wanqing’s screening adventure and learn more about the film on its official website!

Photo courtesy of Wanqing Zhou

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Brazil’s New Dietary Guidelines: Cook and Eat Whole Foods, Be Wary of Ads

Brazilian homes

By Mia MacDonald and Judy Bankman

This blog originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

What if your national dietary guidelines advised you to cook and enjoy fresh, whole foods, and serve them with friends and family while thinking critically about advertising? Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Well, that’s exactly what Brazil’s Ministry of Health is recommending with the “food based” dietary guidelines it issued recently.

Unlike the U.S. dietary guidelines (or “MyPlate”), which focus on reducing solid fats and added sugars, and pinpoint a long list of nutrients to consume or reduce, Brazil’s guidelines keep it simple by encouraging people there to eat more fresh, unprocessed foods.

Here are the guidelines in full:

1. Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods.

2. Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.

3. Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink products.

4. Eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.

5. Eat in company whenever possible.

6. Buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods. Avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption.

7. Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.

8. Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space.

9. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Avoid fast food chains.

10. Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.

“I think it’s terrific that [Brazil’s guidelines] promote real foods, cooking, and family meals, rather than worrying about the nutritional quality of processed foods or dealing with single nutrients,” Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, told us recently.

Like many developed and developing countries, Brazil has seen recent spikes in the numbers of overweight and obese people. In 2011, nearly half of Brazilians were overweight, and about 16 percent were obese. Carlos Monteiro of the University of Sao Paolo attributes this widespread increase in body mass index (BMI) to the transition from unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as rice, fruits, and vegetables to “ultra processed foods.”

Like the U.S., Brazil is a major agricultural producer. Brazil-based JBS is the world’s largest processor of animal protein, and the nation tops the world in exports of beef and chicken. It’s also a leading player in the global soybean boom, and miles and miles of Brazil’s rainforest and savannah have been bulldozed in recent decades to grow livestock feed. In addition to their thriving export trade, Brazilians have begun eating more meat, dairy products, and eggs. And as the Brazilian middle class has grown, transnational food companies like McDonald’s, KFC, and Coca-Cola have expanded their operations and marketing in Brazil, spreading U.S.-style fast food culture further.

But these new guidelines are pointing in the opposite direction: They advocate slower food. By focusing on the importance of taking the time to prepare meals and eat in good company, the new Brazilian dietary guidelines prioritize food culture and the environment in which meals are eaten. This is extremely important: Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shown a link between eating outside the home and increased obesity.

Brazil’s new dietary guidelines are especially illuminating when we compare them to the ones we’ve been told to follow here in the U.S. Our latest guidelines, dating from 2010, focus entirely on specific nutrients. They include statements like “reduce daily sodium intake” and “consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.” While these are clearly good recommendations, their specificity makes it difficult to know exactly what foods to consume. This complicates and can even obscure the fundamentals of a truly healthy diet.

Critics have also pointed out that the U.S. guidelines implicitly protect the food industry by leaving out a recommendation to eat less of specific food products. They also complicate individual decision-making. For example the guidelines state, “Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oil.” For those well-versed in nutrition, this statement might mean, “replace red meat with plant proteins.” But for many others, it’s hard to know for sure what you’re being encouraged to do (or not do).

As the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee works on the 2015 guidelines, they’ve also been accepting public comments. Some commenters have suggested the Committee use Brazil’s new guidelines as a model. “It’s clear from the questions the Committee is asking that its members are increasingly concerned about cultural and environmental influences,” says Nestle. “This is a good sign.”

The tenth and final recommendation, “Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products,” is particularly unusual in the world of dietary guidelines. This indicates the Brazilian government is aware of the harmful effects of advertising and is actively trying to combat food industry manipulation through its policy statements (and actions).

There’s a history here. In 2013, the city of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, fined McDonald’s $1.6 million for using toys and other inducements to appeal to children. São Paulo also was the first city in Brazil to adopt Meatless Mondays (“Segunda Sem Carne” in Portuguese), which has now expanded to 15 cities across the country. Brazil’s government has also mandated healthier school food.

In contrast, our dietary guidelines mention food marketing to kids just once, on page 59 of a 95-page document. And while non-profit groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are working to combat junk food marketing to kids, most government agencies are silent on the issue. First Lady Michelle Obama did announce a new proposal to regulate the marketing of junk food in schools, but it is yet to be seen whether any such language will make it into the 2015 dietary guidelines.

Perhaps the drafting Committee will look south, and Brazil’s pioneering food guidelines will encourage our own policymakers to put more value on a critical-thinking, home-cooking, socially vibrant culture of real food than on the interests of the food industry.

See Brighter Green’s multimedia policy research on climate change, animal agriculture, and natural resources in Brazil here (in English and Portuguese).

Photos courtesy of Gabriel Prehn Britto

Got Milk?: New Policy Paper on Industrialized Dairy in Asia

Dairy consumption is increasing across Asia

Dairy consumption is increasing across Asia

Brighter Green is excited to announce the release of a new policy paper exploring the growth of industrial dairy systems in India, China, and countries of Southeast Asia. The report, Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia, explores the trend toward increased dairy consumption and production and argues that the growth of industrial systems results in severe consequences for the environment, public health, animal welfare, and rural economies.

By 2025, countries in the global South are expected to consume nearly twice as much milk and dairy products as they did in 1997, and Asia is now the world’s highest dairy-consuming region, with 39 percent of global consumption. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms” for dairy production are being set up across the continent, many housing thousands of cows, but the detrimental impacts of this phenomenon for Asia are still largely undocumented.

The report analyzes the effects of CAFOs on a range of ecological, economic, and social systems, and it discusses the possibility of a sustainable future in dairy production with far fewer negative effects on the environment, livelihood, and equity. Country case studies chart the growth and effects, current or anticipated, of CAFO-style dairy production in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

“It’s crucial for policy makers and civil society to take notice of the consequences of dairy CAFOs now,” says the paper’s author Jessika Ava. “Many operations are in the early development and planning stages, and can thus be halted, allowing for the reintroduction of more traditional, more sustainable plant-based agricultural systems for long-term food and livelihood security.” Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia includes a set of recommendations for policy-makers, civil society organizations, international institutions, and the private sector to move in this direction before it’s too late.

Photo courtesy of: Meena Kadri

Cruelty-Free and Sustainable Meat?

By Lauren Berger

Would you eat a lab created burger?

Would you eat a lab created burger?

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

At the New York Academy of Sciences Frontiers in Agricultural Sustainability: Studying the Protein Supply Chain to Improve Dietary Quality seminar a few weeks ago, scientists unveiled a new and exciting development into sustainable and cruelty-free meat and leather (an oxymoron, to say the least): lab created meat and leather.

So how can meat and leather be sustainable and cruelty-free? Scientists in Denmark and the United States have figured out how: by taking skin and tissue biopsies from cows, scientists are able to grow meat and leather cultures in a lab ultimately to the shape of a hamburger or a piece of leather, without killing animals and without producing harmful waste from factory farms. The biopsies are similar to biopsies humans receive, minimally harming the animals and allowing them to live after the procedure.

So, why the move towards lab based meat? Citing the harmful impacts of livestock production on the environment, the world’s growing population and demand for meat, and animal welfare concerns, scientists are looking to develop alternative ways to deal with these issues.

It seems like an ingenious, albeit costly, solution. Cultured Beef, one of the organizations that looks to develop lab based meat, says that as humans we are conditioned to like meat and proposes lab based meat as a solution to the negative effects of this primal need. When asked if the scientists support a plant-based diet in addition to lab based meat in order to reduce the impact of meat consumption, Dr. Mark Post, the scientist that debuted the first lab created beef burger to positive reviews in London, said that it is hard to tell people, particularly in the developing world, to stop eating meat when they have just begun to be able to eat meat due to financial growth.

This world of lab created meat and leather is intriguing as the process itself pretty much removes the negative effects of meat production. But would you eat lab created meat? What would it mean to eat lab based meat if you are a vegetarian or vegan? Would you think it was “odd” or “inorganic” in the same way processed foods are? Or would you view it as a way to get your meat fix in a more environmentally and animal friendly way?

Lab created meat and leather is extremely innovative and raises a lot of questions, but overall, it offers a new and exciting solution to the detrimental effects of livestock production: something we should all applaud.

Photo courtesy of Lucas Richarz/Flickr

Junk Food Marketing Makes Big Moves in Developing Countries

By Judy Bankman and Ross Miranti

This blog originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

KFC marketing in China has targeted the rising middle class and capitalized on their aspirations.

KFC marketing in China has targeted the rising middle class and capitalized on their aspirations..

KFC TV commercials that have aired in China over the last few years reveal a remarkably wide range of marketing techniques. In the ads, humor, irony, playfulness, and sentimentality present the restaurant’s quick-serve food as something that can help families bond, nourish athletes, entertain children, and even make teenagers cooler. Overall, the ads associate KFC with a modern lifestyle, suggesting (implicitly of course) that the Chinese can get their piece of middle class affluence–along with a full belly–for a reasonably low price.

The ads might feel strikingly familiar to American consumers. Though they are in Mandarin and resemble some of the disingenuous marketing from the mid-20th Century, at their core they are just examples of modern marketing, with the primary goal of boosting sales. And sales are booming for fast food and convenience food corporations in China and the rest of the world, as billions of dollars are pumped into marketing their products each year.

While people in all countries are vulnerable to junk food marketing, developing countries might be facing the worst of it. Many transnational food corporations are moving into emerging markets because their markets in developed countries are at a “saturation point.” According to Carlos Monteiro, Head of the University of Sao Paolo’s Centre for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, that point is reached when processed foods provide 60 percent of a country’s total calories. The U.S, Canada and the U.K. reached this level several decades ago.

It’s no wonder, then, that transnational companies like KFC, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola are ramping up marketing efforts in countries like China and Brazil where average incomes are rising, urbanization is well underway, and the opportunity for growth is huge.

Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, earned half of its 2011 operating profit of $1.8 billion from its operations in China. By utilizing some of the tried-and-true techniques that have worked at home in the U.S., Yum! has been incredibly effective at reaching Chinese consumers with catchy ads that drive traffic to a growing number of KFCs and Pizza Huts in and around urban centers.

Globally, six of the 10 most “liked” companies on Facebook are fast food or convenience food corporations. Coca-Cola is on top, with 47 million “likes”; McDonald’s has nearly 22 million. In the U.S. too, of course, junk food purveyors wield enormous power. Children watch on average 13 food commercials per day in the U.S., most of which advertise sugary breakfast cereals, fast food, or soda. Online marketing in the form of “advergames” included in Web sites designed for children is another insidious means of popularizing unhealthy foods.

Largely because of skyrocketing obesity rates and resulting healthcare costs, public health professionals in the U.S. have made the links between marketing of unhealthy foods, consumption of them, and chronic disease. About 17 percent of American children aged two to 19 are now considered obese.

In general, many Americans are aware of the negative health impacts of eating fast and convenience foods (obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, among others). But public policies are, by and large, lagging behind; still, there’s some progress.

Governments in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere may not do much to regulate the marketing and selling of unhealthy foods, but they do promote healthy eating through food nutrition labeling requirements, dietary recommendations, and public health initiatives.

And there’s a range of advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest Food Marketing Workgroup and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) work to counterbalance the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. CCFC, for example, conducts a number of campaigns to stop such advertizing to children, including in schools and on school buses.

Though much more needs to be done, the American public health community has made childhood obesity a key issue and is committed to changing the food environment, including manipulative advertising strategies, which drives dietary choices. This awareness and commitment remains to be seen in most developing countries. But that may well change.

Many developing countries have “leapfrogged” industrialized nations technologically and learned from some of the mistakes high-income countries made during their economic development. Ideally, these countries would likewise adopt healthier diets without having to reach the high rates of chronic, diet-related diseases that have become a bane in the U.S. and other high-income countries.

Brazil provides an example of a potential counter-narrative, with government legislation requiring healthier school meals and the right of accessing healthy food written into the Brazilian constitution. Organic and natural foods are also increasingly popular in Brazil, as incomes rise and concerns about health and food safety become stronger.

Is it utopian to imagine the transformation of the vicious circle of junk food consumption into a virtuous circle of healthy eating? Not completely. When consumers demand healthier foods choices, companies respond by producing and marketing such foods or new companies enter the marketplace to provide them.

Changes in the U.S. market suggest that companies are willing to respond to consumer demand for healthier foods. Fast food outlets have begun to offer somewhat healthier menu items and the market for organic foods is growing steadily.

The U.S. public, increasingly alarmed by the scale of the health crisis being created by junk foods, is learning to demand greater accountability from the food industry—for both its products and marketing practices, particularly its targeting of kids.

But here’s the catch: Companies react to consumer demand only if their profit is not adversely affected. Plus, some of these companies adopt “healthier” options (sometimes they aren’t that different from the original products), or take modest steps to self-regulate, in order to avoid possible government regulation.

Consumer demand is important. But from a public health perspective, policy action is essential, too. In developing countries and the U.S., governments should at a minimum regulate marketing to children. By completely banning junk food advertising on television and sales of junk food in public schools, we may begin to see less consumption of these foods among children, and lower rates of obesity and chronic disease.

While government regulation may help reduce the amount of unhealthy foods kids and adults eat, public health officials and policy makers face an uphill battle. According to Yum! Brands’ optimistic CEO David Novak: “China is the biggest retail opportunity in the 21st century.” How can public policy compete with that?

Photo: KFC marketing in China has targeted the rising middle class and capitalized on their aspirations. Credit: Jun Li/Flickr

India and the Hidden Consequences of Nutrition Transition

By Judy Bankman

Note: This blog originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

indiacover5.5

An egg seller talks on his phone

In India today, hordes of people under 30 line up outside McDonald’s to order the Chicken Maharaja Mac: India’s beef-free version of the Big Mac. Fast food and sodas are “all the rage now,” in the country according to public health activist Shobha Shukla.

Ice cream is also becoming much more popular, with Baskin Robbins, Haagen Dazs, and Magnum already vending throughout India. Although many Indians do not eat beef for religious reasons, Muslims, Christians and even some Hindus are eating more cow and buffalo meat.

India’s booming middle class—estimated to number between 50 million and 250 million—is driving demand for meat, eggs, and dairy products like ice cream (milk has long been a staple of most Indian diets). Despite India’s long tradition of ethical vegetarianism, only about 40 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people now call themselves vegetarian.

For many Indians, particularly in urban areas, owning a television, driving a car, wearing Western brand name clothing, or eating meat are symbols of affluence, independence, and modernity.

“We are quick, hygienic, clean, and are seen as part of global culture,” Vikram Bakshi, managing director of McDonald’s India, told Agence France-Presse.

But being part of “global culture” carries enormous health risks. Heart disease is responsible for the majority of deaths in India, and more than 60 million Indians have been diagnosed with diabetes. That’s nearly five percent of India’s people, and this number is expected to rise—and quickly. By 2050, India will have the dubious distinction of being home to the most diabetics of any country in the world (leaping over China).

Like India, many countries in the global South, including South AfricaMexico, and China, are facing a similar dilemma. As their middle classes grow and rural to urban migration accelerates, more people are moving away from diets high in unprocessed starch, high-fiber vegetables, and plant proteins. Instead they are moving toward a Western-style way of eating, replete with animal protein and fat, refined carbohydrates, and sugar.

cow in ice cream shop

A cow walks into an ice cream shop

This phenomenon has come to be known as the “nutrition transition” and it occurs in many developing countries. With more money and easier access to urban centers that provide cheap, tasty, filling food, who wouldn’t want to start eating like an American? But for India and other transitioning countries, there’s a catch.

It’s not just that the standard American diet leads to weight gain and chronic disease. It does, but for those who were undernourished in utero or in early childhood, switching to a diet high in fat, sugar, and salt carries higher risk for developing chronic disease compared to their counterparts who have been affluent for generations.

Poor early-childhood nutrition leads to a host of metabolic and hormonal changes that actually help survival in nutrient-poor environments, according to Barry Popkin, Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health. However, when confronted with a calorie-packed environment in later years, these adaptive mechanisms may actually lead to obesity.

An important 1976 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that mothers exposed to the 1944-45 Dutch famine during their pregnancies resulted in higher obesity rates among their children.

Similarly, a 2012 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that individuals exposed to the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) in utero and during early childhood had higher rates of glucose intolerance than individuals born after the famine. The “thrifty phenotype hypothesis” gives an explanation for this paradoxical phenomenon.

Partly because of these biological mechanisms, people in developing countries are particularly at risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity. As in India, many countries are going through a nutrition transition so rapidly that children whose parents and grandparents didn’t have enough food can now eat at fast food restaurants and regularly consume the calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food typical of the Western-style diet.

Sometimes the speed of the nutrition transition results in the “double burden of malnutrition”: When hunger and over-nutrition occur at the same time. Among women in India, almost 27 percent are considered underweight, while 19 percent are considered overweight.

Diabetes trends in India are “absolutely frightening,” says Nikhil Tandon, professor of endocrinology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.   “Young people who are the drivers of the economy, who are the protectors of their family, are going to be lost,” according to Prathap Reddy, a cardiologist and founder of a large Indian network of private hospitals.

Researchers have found that in India, income is associated with malnutrition: Richer women who likely have access to a variety of foods tend to be overweight, while poorer women who cannot afford the most basic foods tend to be underweight. And even as a growing number of Indians eat higher up the food chain, under-nutrition remains a stubborn problem. More than 40 percent of Indian children younger than five are malnourished.

Is the nutrition transition an inevitable process? Or could food insecure countries provide calories their people need without gleaning them from saturated fats, sugar, and processed foods? What is clear is that curbing accelerating rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the global South requires policy changes, and quickly. Here are a few ideas:

Governments could subsidize production of native grains and vegetables to make them cheaper and encourage their renewed consumption. Developing countries should limit the advertising and availability of unhealthy foods to children and teens, whether these are the products of transnational food companies or “home grown” purveyors.

Ultimately, perceptions need to change so citizens of the global South see the Western-style diet for what it is: A recipe for obesity and chronic disease.

 

Where Food Injustice Wanders Next: South Africa

By Judy Bankman

This blog post originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

The transnational giants Coke and KFC have increased their presence in urban South AFrica in recent years.

The transnational giants Coke and KFC have increased their presence in urban South AFrica in recent years.

One of the defining landmarks in Johannesburg, South Africa is the Coca-Cola dome: A 19,000-person arena sponsored by the beverage giant. Coke has become increasing popular in South Africa, where an average of 254 Coke products were consumed in 2010. That’s more than the international annual average of 89 per person and quickly approaching the 403 Coke products consumed by the average American.

KFC is also a significant presence in South Africa, with more than 600 locations in the country. Thanks to the increasing availability of soda and fast food, South Africans are developing the chronic diseases associated with the nutrient-poor standard American diet.

As diets around the world are becoming less varied, and more dependent on processed convenience foods, few places demand the attention that South Africa does. As the home to strong historical inequalities and a fierce ongoing battle for racial justice the question arises: What is fueling the adoption of the Western-style diet there? Who is affected the most?

In recent years, South Africans have been migrating from rural areas to urban centers in search of work. Along with more opportunity, life in an urban environment offers easy access to big supermarkets and fast food chains. While access to supermarkets can often be a good thing, large chains like Shoprite and Pick ‘n Pay carry mostly packaged foods that contain the processed meat, refined flour and sugar, and artificial preservatives, the very ingredients that are tied to diet-related illnesses in the developed world.

Many of those who have recently migrated to urban centers consider their rural diets of unprocessed starches such as pap, high-fiber vegetables, and plant proteins “poverty foods,” and have come to embrace the fried fare and animal protein readily available in commercially dense environments. Meanwhile, steep food and fuel prices make food insecurity a persistent and pressing issue in South Africa.

Food insecurity” happens when nutritious food is not available or safe for consumption, and when households cannot acquire food in a socially acceptable way (i.e., scavenging, stealing, using emergency supplies, etc). From 1999 to 2008, access to healthy food has improved in the country’s rural and urban regions. However, the rate of food insecurity remains higher in rural areas: More than 33 percent in 2008 compared to about 20 percent in urban areas.

The Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) found that in 2008, 79 percent of households major cities Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Msunduzi, went without food because of a sharp rise in prices. The DBSA also found a direct link between poverty and food security; predictably, more money means better access to healthy, safe foods.

While many South Africans go without adequate calories and nutrients, many also deal with a range of “Western,” chronic diseases associated with over-nutrition. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) refers to this phenomenon as the “double burden of malnutrition.” It often occurs in developing countries whose markets have opened their doors to multinational food corporations and whose domestic public health efforts have been slow to combat hunger.

Dr. Zandile Mchiza, senior scientist of the Medical Research Council of South Africa, has found that early childhood under-nutrition can lead to obesity later in life. This is cause for concern for low-income South Africans, many of whom probably did not get enough nutritious food when they were youngObesity is a well-known risk factor for diabetes and 61 percent of South Africans are now considered obese. Black women have the highest rates of obesity, affecting about one third of the population. Among men, whites have the highest obesity rate, at 18 percent.

About six percent of the South African population is diabetic, according to Dr. Larry Distiller, founder of the Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology in Johannesburg. But, as Distiller told Health 24 recently, some in the nation are bracing for a “diabetes tsunami,” as The International Diabetes Federation estimates that the rate will nearly double by 2030.

Cultural norms in South Africa often favor bigger bodies, especially among women. Thinness has come to be associated with the scourge of HIV that affects about 17 percent of the South African population. In fact, HIV can also be a risk factor for diabetes because antiretroviral drugs can cause glucose intolerance as a side effect. The adoption of the nutrient-poor American-style diet in urban South Africa now means that doctors and patients in the region must be aware of the potential link between HIV and diabetes.

The South African public health community has starting taking steps to encourage healthier eating. Because sodium causes high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke, the South African government capped the amount of salt that can be added to some processed foods sold in grocery stores. This legislation includes a 50 percent reduction of sodium in bread and comparable reductions inmargarine, soups, and gravies.

Public health professionals hope that with this measure, along with with help from industry, rates of high blood pressure will go down. “Help from industry” is a tricky concept though, as companies’ bottom lines often take precedence over public health or corporate social responsibility. According to Kelly Brownell of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, “The arresting reality is that companies must sell less food if the population is to lose weight, and this pits the fundamental purpose of the food industry against public health goals.” This is as true in South Africa as in the U.S.

Here in the U.S., obesity rates are much higher among Blacks and Hispanics than among whites. Much has been written about the link between food access (or lack there of) and the entrenched racial inequality present in American cities like Detroit, as grocery stores have closed over the years and convenience stores become the de facto food sources. These trends are not unrelated to what is taking place elsewhere around the globe.

However, in places like South Africa, where healthy indigenous diets remain fresh in many people’s minds, the question remains: Is it possible to leave one’s rural homes, make more money, and enjoy the benefits of urban life without adopting the diet-related illnesses that go with them?

Let’s hope the South African government takes this question to heart.

This post is part of an ongoing series focused on the way the Western diet is impacting the developing world. Previous posts include: Mexico: Public Health, Rising Obesity and the NAFTA Effect and The Little Emperor’s Burger.