America's most dangerous export

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America’s most dangerous export

By Oliver Williams


Keoni Cabral (under a Creative Commons Licence)

It used to be an American disease. Now it’s everywhere. Obesity and the diseases that come with it – diabetes, hypertension and heart disease – are now all over the developing world.

The US spends about $150 billion a year on obesity and the other diseases related to obesity. Most countries don’t have as much money to spend: people do not get any treatment or there is much less money to spend on other health problems.

Richer countries have enough money to control diabetes. But, in many other countries people with diabetes often cannot get help. They can’t get insulin, blood-pressure pills and other medicines that cut the risk of complications. As more and more people develop the disease, hospitals might soon be full of patients with the worst diabetes-related problems: blindness, losing a leg or arm, kidney failure (needing dialysis), coma and death (from the New York Times).

The US government likes to say how much it helps by sending money to other countries. But it has done a lot to create an obesity crisis in poorer countries. This will make the poor countries spend billions of extra dollars on health.

America has a public-health crisis. But this didn’t stop Taco Bell from doing a long advertising campaign trying to make people eat a fourth meal every day. And now, the US market is so full that it is difficult to sell Americans more junk food than they’re already eating.

So the powerful junk food companies are trying to sell their products in developing countries.

In 2005, Mark Berlind, from Kraft, said: ‘The 50 US states are now Kraft’s largest market. But future growth for Kraft – as well as for all US food and agriculture – relates to how well we can export to other countries. Mr Chairman, as you and most other farm state members know, 95 per cent of the world’s consumers live outside the US. That is where future growth will be.’

The US is exporting the worst of its eating habits to countries that used to be healthy. Traditional diets have been taken over by globalization. The medical journal The Lancet, said that 70 per cent of adult women and nearly 40 per cent of men in South Africa are overweight or obese.

In the Gulf region, Business Week talks about America’s food influence as ‘the other Gulf-war’. When US military were living in Kuwait, fast-food shops went there too. Now, Kuwait, with its neighbours Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, is one of the fattest countries in the world.

Very remote countries like the Marshall Islands (where diabetes uses 25 per cent of healthcare money) and Samoa also have some of the most obese populations on the planet.

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) started in 1994, Mexicans, too, have started to get very fat.

A study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy shows that this is not a coincidence. Free trade has made it easier to change the way Mexicans eat, and this means the public health has got worse. Mexicans now drink more soft drinks per person in the world (163 litres per year) but many people in the country do not even have drinking water. Soft drinks are often cheaper than bottled water.

Of course, US companies control the soft-drink market. The US exports much more high-fructose corn syrup and NAFTA (the free trade agreement) has brought much more high-calorie ready processed snack food into Mexico and many US fast-food restaurant chains.

KFC, for example, now wants to expand across Africa. And The Guardian says ‘Nestlé is using a floating supermarket to take its products to remote communities in the Amazon. Unilever has many door-to-door salespeople selling to poor villages in India and west and east Africa. The brewer SABMiller (a company who bottle and deliver Coca-Cola), plans to sell twice as many fizzy-drinks in South African townships.’ America’s obesity is becoming normal around the world.

A 2004 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that if you spend $1 in an American supermarket, you can buy either 1,200 calories of unhealthy processed food or 250 calories’ worth of carrots; 875 calories of soda or only 170 calories of fruit juice. Why are foods that have lots of energy but very little nutrients so much cheaper?

Agricultural companies are very powerful in the US. They have had influence on government to create some dangerous agricultural policies. The US government has paid more than $19 billion to subsidise products used in junk food (high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils), but has not subsidised fruit and vegetables.

And this cheap junk food is exported to the whole world.

Obesity now kills more people in the world than hunger, but the political response is very different. If you see starving people, people want to do something about it. But when we see obese people, people say the government shouldn’t stop us eating what we want to eat. And big businesses are free to make us do whatever they want – with clever advertising.

The US spends so much money on the war on drugs, but junk food kills more people than crack cocaine and heroin together. Governments spend billions of dollars and people spend their whole lives looking for cures for diseases, but today’s biggest problem is obesity, which humans themselves have caused.