Are we trading off our health?

In the Western world, the festive season is in full swing and our focus remains on food and drink – most of which is not produced locally. Despite our best intentions, our plates around this time of year are crammed with highly refined cheap foods distributed by a small number of producers. Ten food processors and manufacturers control 28% of the global market. Nestle, Pepsi-Co and Kraft are the three most profitable firms that process agricultural products into food products. Then Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco, which are the most profitable food retailers, sell them to us.

Pause next time before you order quinoa salad. Trade and tariffs affect the health of all us.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has been held up for decades as the regulator of things tradeable. With increasing protectionism around the world, the role of the WTO in regulating the traffic of agricultural products has been substantially reduced to addressing low-impact issues such as  nutrition and country-of-origin labelling, iron and folate (B12) fortification and legal issues such as trademarks and intellectual property.

For too long, the global community has rested on its public health laurels where tobacco control is concerned while the  FDA has championed the regulation of and access to medicines. Compared to these problems, nutrition is a low priority, especially when the relationship linking specific dietary changes and public health outcomes is not straightforward.

For example, in the US, sugar and tobacco awareness and the subsequent imposition of restrictive tariffs has meant that exporters have had to shift their focus to other products – which may be just as unhealthy or even more so. The main exports now are oil seeds, poultry, pork and dairy products, which all contain high levels of saturated fat.

In addition, the foods with the longest shelf lives and therefore those most easily traded have a commercial advantage over fresh, perishable products. These foods are more processed and generally higher in fats, sugars, and salt.

The problem isn’t just one of globalization. The promotion of crop exports such as fruit and vegetables by primary producing countries can lead to increases in prices in local markets.  It also can have detrimental effects on local food security, such as the quinoa crisis in Bolivia, where the quinoa boom and bust left Andean small farmers unable to supply local demand of what had been a staple food.

So, pause next time before you order quinoa salad or your power plus banana that purports to be sustainably grown. Buying imported products from largely agrarian economies can be just as detrimental to planet Earth today as global warming is to the future. Trade and tariffs affect the health of all us and should be eco-friendly.

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