Over-nutrition?

OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate

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For millions of people worldwide, hunger and malnutrition are common everyday challenges. For some, even famine is a threat. But in many developed countries, food abundance brings other serious nutritional and health problems. Though these are being addressed, western habits are starting to spread.

Since the mid 20th century, the modern food production system, focused on increasing output, has successfully met, and even exceeded, the nutritional needs of consumers in developed countries. Not only has it satisfied energy, protein and fat requirements, but it has done so while reducing real prices of food. Indeed, the benefits of innovation and technological advances in agricultural and food production, not to mention more open world trade, have allowed cheap, abundant and varied food supplies throughout the year, so that on average food accounts for only about 15% of household expenditures in most OECD countries.

At the same time, rising incomes, labour force composition, urbanisation and changing demographics have contributed to changing lifestyles, including food consumption behaviours. People in OECD countries are on the run more, spending longer times at their desks and in transit, and less time at lunch. Time and energy devoted to food preparation have become relatively more expensive, and this may be more important than purely budgetary constraints in shaping food choices. These changes mean that both what we eat and how we get it have changed substantially over recent decades. Furthermore, the western diet, dominated by industrially refined carbohydrates, fats and sugars distributed through powerful supply chains, is being adopted the world over to varying degrees.

Food availability has increased in most countries on a per capita basis, and this is evidenced in daily energy, protein and fat supplies. According to FAO food balances, available calories in OECD countries now average 3,400 per person (2003-2005) up from 2,900 in 1964-66. Similar increases have been recorded outside the OECD, in Latin America, North Africa and Asia- Pacific, where daily per capita caloric availability now generally exceeds 3,000 calories per person, though this average may mask uneven distributions. Caution is needed in comparing these numbers to recommended consumption levels; food availability may have risen but people’s caloric needs still vary between 1800- 2200 per person. Little wonder that data on caloric availability also reflect waste of approximately 25%.

The source of calories also matters. WHO estimates that fat intake has increased and is above the maximum 30% recommended energy share in North America and Western Europe, with saturated fats frequently above the 10% mark. These levels are not compatible with healthy cardiovascular systems. Yet fruit and vegetable consumption, whose contribution to good health and disease prevention is well documented, remains below recommended 400 grammes a day in most countries.

With people spending less of their energy for most daily activities, including work, and with the spread of refined foods, the incidence of overweight and obesity has risen in recent years. Some doctors in OECD countries speak of an obesity epidemic among adults and children, which has alarmed healthcare officials, because being overweight is a precursor of numerous chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many cancers. These are not only costly to individuals and to the public purse but are also largely avoidable through dietary and lifestyle changes, including exercise. Governments, both in OECD countries and across the globe are beginning to address diet and health issues, with obesity being but one increasingly global concern. The task is daunting. Changing food habits is very difficult because of the cultural, social and often psychological attachment to particular foods.

Can agriculture play a role in tackling such issues? Much of the answer depends on working with the producers and consumers to strengthen both supply and demand in healthier and abundant foods. This means helping consumers to make healthy choices as well as persuading food industry players– from agriculture to manufacturing and retailing–to change some of their ways too. That is their challenge in the 21st century.


FAO (2010), “Food Balance Sheets”, available at www.fao.org/  

OECD (2009), “Policy Initiatives Concerning Diet, Health and Nutrition”, Working Party on Agricultural Policies and Markets, OECD, Paris.

OECD (2009), Health data, available at www.oecd.org/health  

Sassi, F, M Cecchini, J Lauer, and D Chisholm (2009), “Improving Lifestyles, Tackling Obesity”, OECD Health Working Papers, no. 48, OECD, Paris.


©OECD Observer n°278, March 2010




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