The World Bank Weighs in on Obesity and Food Systems

By Lawrence Haddad, GAIN’s Executive Director

The World Bank and Obesity.  Not often terms we find in the same sentence. But I am really glad to see the Bank pick up on this issue, particularly the links between food systems and obesity.

I’m referring to a new World Bank publication called “An Overview of Links Between Obesity and Food Systems”. I can’t find it on the web, but here is a PDF.

The report is well written and sensible, but does not contain anything new in substance.  Here are the entry points for “possible action”.

However, the Report is highly noteworthy for several reasons.

First, it is the World Bank. Love them or not, they matter. If they say we need to pay more attention to how food systems can mitigate obesity, others will pay attention. They reach constituencies that WHO, FAO, the NCD Alliance and, ahem, GAIN cannot.

Second, this is an organisation steadfastly focused on poverty reduction (explicitly since 1999’s World Development Report) and obesity is routinely seen as a manifestation of wealth. Well, it is not. It is driven by inequality and, in some countries, by poverty.

Third, the Bank uses the Global Panel’s Conceptual Framework for Food Systems. This is great, not just because I was one of the authors of that, but because it means that the Bank is building on the work of others, something it has not always done, for whatever reason.

Fourth, the Bank report really accentuates the pattern of investments in of agricultural R&D and how too little of it is allocated to crops other than rice, wheat and maize. This matters because the Bank is the convenor and key financier of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which is the premier public research body on agriculture.

Fifth, the Bank report is realistic about evidence. It says there is not nearly enough, but it does not use this as an excuse for inaction.  Refreshing.

So while the Report does not contain much new thinking, it is an important signal to those inside and outside the World Bank that obesity is not off the table, and that some of the Bank’s investments in agriculture and food systems could be doing more to mitigate it and may even be inadvertently contributing to it.

Not every report has to be path-breaking in its content to be exciting.

Bravo to our H Street colleagues.

Download the World Bank’s publication “An Overview of Links Between Obesity and Food Systems” here

This blogpost is also available on Development Horizons

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Published 19 July 2017