September 28 2011
The UN's Upside-Down Food Priorities
Nicole Kurokawa Neily
In between racking up parking tickets, fighting over who can call themselves "Macedonians," and walking out on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (again), the diplomats who gathered in New York City last week for a meeting of the United Nation's General Assembly found time to address a serious issue: What you can (and can't) eat.
The U.N. spells out the reason for the side event (The 2011 High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases) in a 13-page-long "Political Declaration," which explains (in 42 handy points) why sovereign governments should meddle in the personal decisions of their citizens. That bureaucrat-speak can be boiled down to this: The most lethal non-communicable diseases are linked to what the U.N. calls "common modifiable risk factors," such as smoking, abusing alcohol and eating unhealthy food, so governments should cajole - or better yet force - citizens to live healthier.
The U.N. encourages countries (in 23 steps, nonetheless) to discourage "the production and marketing of foods that contribute to unhealthy diet" and to "work towards reducing the use of salt."
This is unsurprising - nanny-statists will be statists, after all. Yet even hardened government skeptics should be shocked at the U.N.'s misplaced priorities and how far the organization has strayed from one of its original core issues: combating hunger.
According to the U.N.'s World Food Program, 925 million people do not have enough to eat - 98 percent of whom live in developing countries. Five million children die every year from undernourishment (starvation). One out of four children in developing countries (roughly 146 million) is underweight. Those children are sick an average of 160 days a year. Beyond the obvious human tragedy in this - the suffering children and loss of life - this has a devastating economic impact. Parents caring for sick children cannot work. Each child lost is a lost future community member and contributor to the overall community's well-being.
Compare those staggering numbers to the fear-mongering over "non-communicable diseases" by the World Health Organization, which asserts that "More than 36 million die annually from NCDs, including 9 million people who die too young before the age of 60."
To be blunt, shouldn't the U.N. try to get food to the nearly billion starving people before worrying about "the impact of the marketing of unhealthy foods" in the developed world?
Fortunately, there are promising ways the developing world can address hunger. Unfortunately, many of these have been stymied by well-intentioned liberals who want countries to develop "properly" or not at all.
One way that the developing world can combat hunger is by extracting more palm oil from indigenous palm trees. Not only can communities in developing countries consume palm oil but they can sell it to developed countries, creating jobs and wealth. Palm oil, which is cheap and easy to grow, is also an excellent source of vitamin A (notably, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in the world, afflicting between 250,000 and 500,000 children every year, half of whom will die within 12 months.) Yet the resource has become a target of environmentalists, who complain that cultivating palm oil disrupts the habitat of certain species - species which are apparently more important than those starving children.
Genetically modified seeds are another tool that developing countries can use to combat hunger. By increasing local food production, genetically modified seeds can prevent malnutrition and save millions of lives. Again, many liberal environmentalists oppose genetically modified seeds, with some going as far as to assert that the world has enough food (it's just not being distributed properly - any guesses as to who might fix that?).
If the attendees at the U.N.'s high-level meeting are truly concerned about "building community capacity in promoting healthy diets and lifestyles," as their declaration states, they've put the cart before the horse. The world's poor aren't concerned about "healthier options," they are concerned about where their next meal will come from.
The U.N. needs to get its priorities straight. Rather than kowtowing to liberal elites by nagging the developed world about eating healthier, the U.N. should fight those who would condemn developing countries to decades more of starvation by limiting their agriculture options.