A recent analysis by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) finds that food-related trade and fiscal policies are linked to weight outcomes and diet-related illnesses. The findings stress the importance of combining public health policy with trade and fiscal policy reforms.
“One of the important findings we show is that governments will have to look beyond public health policies and hence consider fiscal and trade policies to address the unprecedented rise in overweight and obesity rates in LMICs,” Kibrom Abay, a Country Program Leader and Research Fellow at IFPRI, tells Food Tank.
The IFPRI analysis explores the relationship between tariffs and subsidies and consumption of unhealthy food and body weight in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
Using data from the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, the analysis finds that tariff rates on unhealthy foods such as confectionery products are negatively associated with overweight and obesity rates. And as the share of government spending on subsidies for wheat, rice, corn, sugar, cooking oil, and cereal increases, overweight and obesity rates also increase.
These findings reveal, according to the researchers, that countries can leverage food-related trade and fiscal policies to combat overweight and obesity and the associated non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
IFPRI says that trade policies and subsidies drive the supply and demand of unhealthy food and are strongly associated with increases in body weight. By implementing nutrition-sensitive trade and fiscal policies, countries can reduce overweight and obesity. Conversely, if these policies are left unattended, “they can further aggravate the recent trends,” Abay tells Food Tank.
The analysis also finds that poorer households that cannot afford healthy diets rely more heavily on unhealthy and subsidized foods. It suggests that reforming fiscal and trade policies may be an effective intervention to address overweight and obesity in low-resource communities.
According to the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO), global obesity nearly tripled since 1975. Currently, 13 percent of the world’s adult population live with obesity. WHO also shares that while obesity and overweight are gradually declining in high-income countries, the rates are sharply increasing in LMICs.
Overweight and obesity are key risk factors for many NCDs including hypertension, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, according to the U.N. Pan American Health Organization. NCDs will cost seven trillion in the next 15 years in LMICs, placing additional fiscal burdens on already vulnerable economies.
The IFPRI analysis finds that for LMICs, globalization shifts diets towards more processed foods and contributes to the rise of obesity and overweight. Abay explains that governments and transnational corporations may need to consider the public health implications of their trade agreements. This is especially true because “LMICs may not have the flexibility and leverage to easily influence transnational trade agreements and foreign direct investments by food corporations,” Abay tells Food Tank.
Abay adds that there is still need for deeper research into the “micro-level causal relationship between these policies and weight outcomes.” It is also important that LMICs combine public health policy with trade and fiscal policy reforms in their COVID-19 response.
And while the report concedes it is a time-consuming and complex process to reform trade policies, it concludes that “nutrition-sensitive trade agreements may help LMICs reduce potential adverse effects of trade liberalization.”
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