[INTERVIEW] 'Korea's mortality, morbidity will rise without drastic food system reform' - The Korea Times
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[INTERVIEW] 'Korea's mortality, morbidity will rise without drastic food system reform'

Lawrence Haddad, executive director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, warns that the world's food systems threaten people with malnutrition. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad
Lawrence Haddad, executive director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, warns that the world's food systems threaten people with malnutrition. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad

By Ko Dong-hwan

For Lawrence Haddad, a global activist promoting nutritious foods for all, the increased risk of high fasting plasma glucose in South Korea means a broader highway to higher mortality and morbidity burdens. The risk, among the country's top 10 factors behind the most local death and disability, jumped from third in 2009 to second in 2019.

"This is due to high consumption of added sugar, probably by adolescents who are departing from the South Korean traditional, very healthy diet," Haddad, executive director of Geneva-based non-profit foundation Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), told The Korea Times.

His alarming forecast was also based on another fact that five of the top 10 fatal factors were related to diet ― dietary risks (No. 4), high blood pressure (No. 5), high body-mass index (No. 6) and high low-density lipoprotein, or LDL (No. 9).

Those factors were found and ranked by the Institute for Health Metric and Evaluation (IHME)'s "Global Burden of Disease (GBD) 2019," a comprehensive global survey published in medical journals portal The Lancet on Oct. 15. It analyzed 286 causes of death, 369 diseases and injuries, and 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories to reveal "how well the world's population was prepared in terms of underlying health for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic."

GBD 2019's analysis on South Korea showed that unless South Koreans' dietary plans were better supported so more people could have a better access to more nutritious foods, people will suffer from early death and the heavy burden of diseases at a faster pace than anticipated.

"Until the food system in South Korea is transformed, this mortality and morbidity burden will grow," Haddad said. "Moving toward a more plant-based diet will be good for health and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Screen capture from Institute for Health Metric and Evaluation's Global Burden of Disease 2019 published online. healthdata.org
Screen capture from Institute for Health Metric and Evaluation's Global Burden of Disease 2019 published online. healthdata.org


Haddad was a panelist on "
Voices of Food Systems: 24-hour Global Relay Conversation" streamed live on YouTube on World Food Day on Oct. 16 and hosted by U.N. Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). He participated in the session "Youth Activism and Food Systems: Racing for Change."

UNFSS, under the direction of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, hosted the event in recognition that there are now about 3 billion worldwide who cannot afford to eat healthy diets, the figure many experts deemed "unacceptable."

"The way we produce, process and consume food, what experts call 'food systems,' is a paradox," Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the 2020 UNFSS, said ahead of hosting the online event.

"Over the last 50 years, our ability to produce food has gone up by nearly 300 percent, but the hungry people have gone up to 820 million in the last three years. Two billion people are obese or have food-related diseases. Furthermore, we waste 35 percent of produced food, which is equivalent to $936 billion annually."

Kalibata pointed out that climate change-driven droughts, floods and wildfires around the world were interfering with food systems globally, and our food system was contributing 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emission.

"To achieve the sustainable development goals (agreed by the U.N. member states concerned about climate change's lasting impact on the earth) in the remaining time, our food systems must change," Kalibata said.

Haddad meets girls in Bangladesh, one of the countries that the future scenarios from 'Global Burden of Disease 2019' forecasts will have the highest life expectancies by 2100. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad
Haddad meets girls in Bangladesh, one of the countries that the future scenarios from 'Global Burden of Disease 2019' forecasts will have the highest life expectancies by 2100. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad

Haddad said the global food system was "not resilient" because it was working out for only "too few people," generating hunger and malnourishment and causing biodiversity loss.

"Our food system is causing great harm to our population's health, incurring large health expenditures for families, and placing the health system under great strain," he said. GBD 2019 showed that while each South Korean spent an average of $2,118 on health in 2017, the figure for 2050 is expected to rise to $5,200. And most of those costs were covered by government health spending, followed by out-of-pocket spending.

"So you cannot tinker the edges, but you have to transform them (the system and its functions)."

And UNFSS' Voices of Food Systems was where key players of science, business, healthcare, farmers, indigenous people, youth groups and environmental activists from around the world joined to seek creative solutions.

"The big part (of the event) is breaking into the public consciousness, how important food systems are," Haddad said during the online panel discussion.

Adolescents in Surabaya in Indonesia's East Java Province. Haddad argues that the youths are future business clients and future voters and must raise their voices to improve the world's food systems. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad
Adolescents in Surabaya in Indonesia's East Java Province. Haddad argues that the youths are future business clients and future voters and must raise their voices to improve the world's food systems. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad

Challenging youths

Haddad sees in youths potential future key players. But he also sees them as one of the most vulnerable groups taking hits from unhealthy, weak food systems around the world. He advocated and championed them during the Voices of Food Systems conversation where he was joined by Irish food system and nutrition activist Sophie Healy-Thow, who represented voices of the youths.

He said youths in poor households have been particularly hit hard by the COVID-19 global pandemic that affected local food systems in many countries.

"Many of them depend on school meals for the best meal they get all day and if school closes, they miss that meal," Haddad said. "Also, youths also like to be active. If they cannot (due to school closures), they run the risk of putting on a lot of weight unless they moderate what they eat."

He is most worried about infants and children aged two years or under, who, without sufficient nutrition, cannot recover.

"If their diets worsen, they only have a short window to correct that. If they miss that window, their immune and cognitive functions are impaired for life. They cannot 'build back better'," Haddad said.

These reality-checks on foods and access to healthy nutrition for all have yet to penetrate into part of the most ubiquitous scenes in South Korea ― where foods seem eternal and okay to waste. To Haddad, these scenes were particularly bad influence on youths.

A South Korean YouTuber with channel 'Real Sound UDT Muk-Bang' streams himself eating barbequed chickens. Screen capture from YouTube
A South Korean YouTuber with channel 'Real Sound UDT Muk-Bang' streams himself eating barbequed chickens. Screen capture from YouTube

About South Korean YouTubers eating a grotesquely large amount of food to draw attention, Haddad said the scenes needed to be balanced out by counter-acting YouTube influencers from the country or elsewhere.

"This form of entertainment is bad for the health of the participants and the audience, quite aside from the signal it sends to the rest of the world about how 'awake' South Korean youths are to world affairs," Haddad said.

He also suggested introducing a "monitoring measure in collaboration with NGOs" in restaurants or any dining place in South Korea to curb food waste. "We can also reward restaurants that minimize plate waste, or donate stock waste to community foodbanks or to networks such as Olio (a sharing app for food and other household items)."

Haddad believes in the power of voices of youths, and suggests those concerned with the global food systems under threat must raise their voices to adults who have decision-making authorities.

"In the U.K., there is no age cut-off for people to initiate a petition to the U.K. government, and a group of adolescents can send an open letter to news media outlets and websites," Haddad said. "They can use apps to get signatures for food-related causes or link to music and sports stars and influencers on YouTube or Instagram. They can organize clubs within their schools. They can also go to their elected representatives and ask them to raise an issue in Parliament.

"It is true that official channels tend to depend on some form of democracy being in place and respect for civil and political rights, but many such contexts have enormous problems with poor access to affordable nutritious foods."


Lawrence Haddad, executive director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, warns that the world's food systems threaten people with malnutrition. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad
Lawrence Haddad, executive director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, warns that the world's food systems threaten people with malnutrition. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad

By Ko Dong-hwan

For Lawrence Haddad, a global activist promoting nutritious foods for all, the increased risk of high fasting plasma glucose in South Korea means a broader highway to higher mortality and morbidity burdens. The risk, among the country's top 10 factors behind the most local death and disability, jumped from third in 2009 to second in 2019.

"This is due to high consumption of added sugar, probably by adolescents who are departing from the South Korean traditional, very healthy diet," Haddad, executive director of Geneva-based non-profit foundation Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), told The Korea Times.

His alarming forecast was also based on another fact that five of the top 10 fatal factors were related to diet ― dietary risks (No. 4), high blood pressure (No. 5), high body-mass index (No. 6) and high low-density lipoprotein, or LDL (No. 9).

Those factors were found and ranked by the Institute for Health Metric and Evaluation (IHME)'s "Global Burden of Disease (GBD) 2019," a comprehensive global survey published in medical journals portal The Lancet on Oct. 15. It analyzed 286 causes of death, 369 diseases and injuries, and 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories to reveal "how well the world's population was prepared in terms of underlying health for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic."

GBD 2019's analysis on South Korea showed that unless South Koreans' dietary plans were better supported so more people could have a better access to more nutritious foods, people will suffer from early death and the heavy burden of diseases at a faster pace than anticipated.

"Until the food system in South Korea is transformed, this mortality and morbidity burden will grow," Haddad said. "Moving toward a more plant-based diet will be good for health and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Screen capture from Institute for Health Metric and Evaluation's Global Burden of Disease 2019 published online. healthdata.org
Screen capture from Institute for Health Metric and Evaluation's Global Burden of Disease 2019 published online. healthdata.org


Haddad was a panelist on "
Voices of Food Systems: 24-hour Global Relay Conversation" streamed live on YouTube on World Food Day on Oct. 16 and hosted by U.N. Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). He participated in the session "Youth Activism and Food Systems: Racing for Change."

UNFSS, under the direction of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, hosted the event in recognition that there are now about 3 billion worldwide who cannot afford to eat healthy diets, the figure many experts deemed "unacceptable."

"The way we produce, process and consume food, what experts call 'food systems,' is a paradox," Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the 2020 UNFSS, said ahead of hosting the online event.

"Over the last 50 years, our ability to produce food has gone up by nearly 300 percent, but the hungry people have gone up to 820 million in the last three years. Two billion people are obese or have food-related diseases. Furthermore, we waste 35 percent of produced food, which is equivalent to $936 billion annually."

Kalibata pointed out that climate change-driven droughts, floods and wildfires around the world were interfering with food systems globally, and our food system was contributing 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emission.

"To achieve the sustainable development goals (agreed by the U.N. member states concerned about climate change's lasting impact on the earth) in the remaining time, our food systems must change," Kalibata said.

Haddad meets girls in Bangladesh, one of the countries that the future scenarios from 'Global Burden of Disease 2019' forecasts will have the highest life expectancies by 2100. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad
Haddad meets girls in Bangladesh, one of the countries that the future scenarios from 'Global Burden of Disease 2019' forecasts will have the highest life expectancies by 2100. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad

Haddad said the global food system was "not resilient" because it was working out for only "too few people," generating hunger and malnourishment and causing biodiversity loss.

"Our food system is causing great harm to our population's health, incurring large health expenditures for families, and placing the health system under great strain," he said. GBD 2019 showed that while each South Korean spent an average of $2,118 on health in 2017, the figure for 2050 is expected to rise to $5,200. And most of those costs were covered by government health spending, followed by out-of-pocket spending.

"So you cannot tinker the edges, but you have to transform them (the system and its functions)."

And UNFSS' Voices of Food Systems was where key players of science, business, healthcare, farmers, indigenous people, youth groups and environmental activists from around the world joined to seek creative solutions.

"The big part (of the event) is breaking into the public consciousness, how important food systems are," Haddad said during the online panel discussion.

Adolescents in Surabaya in Indonesia's East Java Province. Haddad argues that the youths are future business clients and future voters and must raise their voices to improve the world's food systems. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad
Adolescents in Surabaya in Indonesia's East Java Province. Haddad argues that the youths are future business clients and future voters and must raise their voices to improve the world's food systems. Courtesy of Lawrence Haddad

Challenging youths

Haddad sees in youths potential future key players. But he also sees them as one of the most vulnerable groups taking hits from unhealthy, weak food systems around the world. He advocated and championed them during the Voices of Food Systems conversation where he was joined by Irish food system and nutrition activist Sophie Healy-Thow, who represented voices of the youths.

He said youths in poor households have been particularly hit hard by the COVID-19 global pandemic that affected local food systems in many countries.

"Many of them depend on school meals for the best meal they get all day and if school closes, they miss that meal," Haddad said. "Also, youths also like to be active. If they cannot (due to school closures), they run the risk of putting on a lot of weight unless they moderate what they eat."

He is most worried about infants and children aged two years or under, who, without sufficient nutrition, cannot recover.

"If their diets worsen, they only have a short window to correct that. If they miss that window, their immune and cognitive functions are impaired for life. They cannot 'build back better'," Haddad said.

These reality-checks on foods and access to healthy nutrition for all have yet to penetrate into part of the most ubiquitous scenes in South Korea ― where foods seem eternal and okay to waste. To Haddad, these scenes were particularly bad influence on youths.

A South Korean YouTuber with channel 'Real Sound UDT Muk-Bang' streams himself eating barbequed chickens. Screen capture from YouTube
A South Korean YouTuber with channel 'Real Sound UDT Muk-Bang' streams himself eating barbequed chickens. Screen capture from YouTube

About South Korean YouTubers eating a grotesquely large amount of food to draw attention, Haddad said the scenes needed to be balanced out by counter-acting YouTube influencers from the country or elsewhere.

"This form of entertainment is bad for the health of the participants and the audience, quite aside from the signal it sends to the rest of the world about how 'awake' South Korean youths are to world affairs," Haddad said.

He also suggested introducing a "monitoring measure in collaboration with NGOs" in restaurants or any dining place in South Korea to curb food waste. "We can also reward restaurants that minimize plate waste, or donate stock waste to community foodbanks or to networks such as Olio (a sharing app for food and other household items)."

Haddad believes in the power of voices of youths, and suggests those concerned with the global food systems under threat must raise their voices to adults who have decision-making authorities.

"In the U.K., there is no age cut-off for people to initiate a petition to the U.K. government, and a group of adolescents can send an open letter to news media outlets and websites," Haddad said. "They can use apps to get signatures for food-related causes or link to music and sports stars and influencers on YouTube or Instagram. They can organize clubs within their schools. They can also go to their elected representatives and ask them to raise an issue in Parliament.

"It is true that official channels tend to depend on some form of democracy being in place and respect for civil and political rights, but many such contexts have enormous problems with poor access to affordable nutritious foods."


Ko Dong-hwan aoshima11@koreatimes.co.kr

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