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Climate change, hunger, obesity need collective solutions, according to new report

Stephen Drake/Flickr
Professor Marlene Schwartz at the University of Connecticut said one of the best ways to conquer climate change, hunger and obesity concurrently is through the agriculture sector.

In January, British medical journal The Lancet published a treatise that argued consumers, business leaders and policymakers must focus their efforts on tackling obesity, climate change and hunger together to be able to solve all three effectively.

Marlene Schwartz, director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and professor at the University of Connecticut, joined us on "Take Care" to discuss. She said this is a new approach that can go a long way in tackling three issues long thought best to handle separately.

“Historically, we really have looked at those problems independently, but recently, researchers have come together and tried to come up with ideas of how we could fix all three problems at once, which is kind of overwhelming,” Schwartz said.

The key to The Lancet’s argument is that hunger, obesity and climate change are naturally connected and therefore need to be solved in connected ways, Schwartz said.

“The recommendations are really about protecting the planet and making sure that our food system isn’t creating greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change,” Schwartz said.

One of the biggest ways to help solve all three problems at once is decreasing red meat consumption, Schwartz said. In developed countries that can easily provide other sources of protein for its consumers, decreasing meat consumption means farmland originally used for growing feed can be used instead to grow fruits, vegetables and legumes, which is better for the environment as well as physical health.

“When you look at it from a human health perspective, decreasing meat consumption, decreasing dairy, increasing plants is entirely consistent with all of the dietary recommendations,” Schwartz said.

“It’s more realistic now than I think it’s ever been before.”

If the federal government set up financing and reinforcement for the agriculture sector in the U.S., Schwartz said, many farmer would be happy to shift their practices to accommodate this change as long as it was financially sustainable for them.

Schwartz said another big change to help solve these three issues is to have food prices properly represent the cost of production, including making healthy items more affordable than the traditionally cheap unhealthy options.

“The problem is that that low cost is deceptively low,” Schwartz said. “It will definitely require a big shift that the foods that are harming human health will need to become more expensive. And ideally, if we use something like taxes, that revenue could then be used to subsidize the healthier foods.”

Food industry lobbying groups are fighting back, though, which Schwartz said gets in the way of progress.

“The beverage industry has been fighting taxes with astonishing vehemence,” Schwartz said. “In some ways, I look at that and I think it’s evidence of how powerful they think that the taxes will be. Otherwise, why would they be fighting them so hard?”

The Lancet has called for an international treaty to tackle these issues on a global scale, and though Schwartz said she agrees, she is uncertain about the United States’ role.

“It’s going to be a little bit of a longer-term process to see if we can bring everybody together,” Schwartz said.

In addition to the efforts the treatise proposes, Schwartz said implementing other local measures is equally important, like using additional taxes on items like sugary drinks to support early care and education programs and parks.

“They’re really trying to support lower-income families and increase the way that the neighborhood can be used for people to be outside and be physically active,” Schwartz said. “It all feeds into that overall shift in terms of improving health.”

Schwartz is optimistic about the future of these issues and said she sees an empowering level of enthusiasm in young people that can incite positive change for the rest of the world to tackle hunger, obesity and climate change.

“It’s more realistic now than I think it’s ever been before,” Schwartz said. “I think that public awareness of the concerns of human health based on our dietary quality and concerns about climate change and planetary health are very salient right now.”