Our food systems are failing us, and young people demand action
Greta Thunberg has become an icon around the world. Her voice launched a global climate change movement. She has urged us to adopt a shared approach to planetary health and has recognised the essential role we, young people, hold in building a better world.
Today, our world is home to the largest generation of young people in history. In 2020 there were 1.21 billion individuals aged between 15 - 24, and predicted to rise to 1.4 billion by 2065. Lower income countries are expected to experience the highest increases: by 2050, the youth population across Africa is projected to increase by over 89% and to swell by nearly 40% in Oceania.
The final report of The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission defines planetary health as “the achievement of the highest attainable standard of health, wellbeing, and equity worldwide.” Prior to COVID-19, falling levels of malnutrition and child mortality, alongside increases in life expectancy, led many to believe that “planetary health” was achievable. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed deeply rooted and long-standing issues. Earlier this year, evidence confirmed speculations of a correlation between countries with high obesity rates and high COVID-19 mortality rates. Obesity was elevated up the global agenda, recognised as a serious public health emergency by the World Health Organization.
Adult and childhood obesity levels have been growing sharply, with numbers nearly doubling every 10 years. Over 200 million children could be living with obesity by 2030. Rising obesity levels have been mirrored by an unprecedented increase in early-onset cases of type 2 diabetes, with a projected 4-fold increase in young people living with type 2 diabetes by 2050.
The root causes of obesity are complex and range from biology and genetics to the role external environments have on individuals. Food systems – encompassing all food production processes from “farm to table” – play an important role. As we painfully learned with COVID-19, strained food systems have detrimental societal outcomes on food security, population health and social welfare. Many people have been forced to rely on low-cost long-life shelf products, often high in fat, sugar and salt - better known as ultra-processed foods (UPF). There is now mounting evidence to show that consuming the majority of our daily calories from UPF has a direct impact on body weight and cognitive functions, especially in children. In the US, among children, nearly two-thirds of calorie intake comes from UPF.
The high reliance on UPF is no surprise given that “healthy diets cost 60% more than diets that only meet the requirements for essential nutrients”, and are most expensive in low- and middle-income countries. In a recent event , Dr Chris Tufton, the Jamaican Minister of Health and Wellness, put the issue in stark terms: “Food systems are too focused on profitability.” Providing calories as cheaply as possible does not equate to nutritious and affordable food. Yet, the consequences of unhealthy diets are untold, with poor diets responsible for more than 11 million premature deaths globally.
But we are not ignorant of the crisis and are taking matters into our own hands. The youth-led #Act4Food #Act4Change Campaign is committed to re-writing the current narrative from one that is written for youth to one that is written by youth, through the implementation of actions to create change at national and local level. From a successful campaign by Bite Back 2030 urging the UK government to end online junk food advertising, to the Healthy Caribbean Youth calling on Caribbean Community and Common Market countries to improve front-of-pack labelling, youth around the world are striving to improve our food systems.
The pandemic revealed that health – and its absence – is often shaped by the society we live in. The UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021 provides a unique opportunity for us to consider ways of improving our food systems. Recent reports show that too many countries now face the double burden of undernutrition and obesity. Innovative solutions and collaborations are required to create real change. We must be central to the dialogue, because just as with climate change, the consequences of unhealthy and unsustainable food systems will impact us the most. A decisive shift away from unilateral approaches towards cooperation between diverse stakeholders is essential. Recognising this, the Netherlands and the World Economic Forum recently launched the Food Innovation Hubs Initiative, focused on urging different stakeholders to leverage innovations and support food systems transformation.
The Summit has ignited a sense of urgency amongst young people. As the future generation of leaders, policy makers and voters, youth around the world are keen to help build back better from the pandemic and create healthier and more just environments. For the benefit of everyone, our voices must be amplified.
Margot Neveux, Senior Policy Manager, World Obesity Federation
Dipty Chowdhury, Youth Leader, UN Food System Summit Action Track 1