The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has boldly stepped into the food wars, claiming that an unhealthy diet is a greater global health risk than tobacco. The statement was issued in mid-May in Geneva at a Consumers International (CI) event, which also served to promote the organization’s “Recommendations Towards a Global Convention to Protect and Promote Healthy Diets.”
The statement was issued by Belgian professor Olivier de Schutter, special rapporteur on the right to food since 2008 and former head of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights. Professor de Schutter, who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, stated “Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.”
If this sounds like a draconian measure to force people to eat according to some international standard, it’s not. The CI’s recommendations range from food education and information for all people to policy coherence in food systems to protect and promote healthy diets. The recommendations also advocate for responsible food and beverage advertising, including controls on advertising, promotion and sponsorship to children.
In 2012, de Schutter authored the report “The right to an adequate diet: the agriculture-food-health nexus” in which he identified five priority actions to address the issues of obesity and unhealthy diets. The priorities were:
- Taxing unhealthy products;
- Regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar;
- Cracking down on junk food advertising;
- Overhauling misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others; and
- Supporting local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods.
If you put 100 regulators, diet experts, scientists and food industrialists in a room together, you will get 100 definitions of “unhealthy” so, regrettably, that first important priority may never be fulfilled. The other four priorities are much closer to reality and an excellent start to further promote healthy eating and dietary education.
The challenge with healthy eating is similar to the challenge with tobacco use: you would expect people to make life-affirming and health-promoting choices. The challenge with regulating diets is equally daunting. Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles declared, “Do not command what you cannot enforce,” and that is the problem with making healthy eating a legal issue at the individual level. By tackling unhealthy food at the corporate level and focusing on proactive policy and education for citizens, an informed public can make an educated decision about its food choices.