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09/27/2018 08:03 am ET

Jeffrey Sachs: Sugar Addiction Is A Sign Of Our Broken Food System

The economist and adviser to the U.N. chief takes aim at large food companies that “peddle food and drink that is bad for people.”
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The U.S. food industry must take blame for our huge intake of sugar and unhealthy processed foods, and the rising levels of heart disease and diabetes, says a leading development economist and adviser to the United Nations secretary-general.

In an outspoken critique of the world’s food system, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, called for profound change.

“On the one hand we have hunger in places of poverty, with families who farm often unable to feed themselves,” Sachs says. “On the other, the food industry has physically addicted huge numbers of people to sugar and unhealthy processed food.”

Studies have pointed to sugar’s addictive qualities, suggesting that it can, in some circumstances, lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of substance abuse. And the U.S. food system slips sugar into people’s diets (as well as fats and salt), through a wide range of foods ― not just the obvious ones like soda and candy, but also processed foods like bread, cereals and pizza. It has an impact on our bodies: Sugar consumption has been linked to heart disease and diabetes.

“Americans are physiologically addicted to it. The pathway for sugar in the brain is not very different to other addiction problems,” says Sachs, who strongly criticizes large food companies that “peddle food and drink that is bad for people.”

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The problem is much wider than sugar. “The world food system is not working,” says Sachs, who will speak at the International Forum on Food and Nutrition in New York later this week. One-third of all the food produced is wasted, the world is running out of cultivable land, and the human population is set to increase by more than 2 billion people in the next 35 years. 

Sachs says most rich countries are failing the double challenge of nutrition and food waste, but the U.S. is particularly at fault. Its farm industry not only produces very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, but average per capita meat consumption in the U.S. is one of the highest in the world (only Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina eat more).

It ranks 24th of 34 countries for nutrition in the Global Food Security Index and is one of the worst when it comes to sustainable farming, with only India, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates ranking lower.

Sachs now fears President Donald Trump’s rollback of environmental and health safeguards could increase both world hunger and diet-related diseases. While the food industry is lobbying the administration to abandon new requirements for the disclosure of calories, sugar and other nutritional information on food products, climate change is expected to affect crop yields and food security in many developing countries.

“The whole world is standing in amazement and trepidation at this emotionally unstable and aggressive president,” Sachs says. “On environmental issues, he is outrightly hostile to the things that need to be done. He is out to break every environmental limit there is. Nineteen out of 20 G-20 countries signed up to the Paris agreement to limit greenhouse emissions. The U.S. stands alone.”

When it comes to solving the complex issues of the global food crisis, there is no single answer, Sachs says. Instead, there is a set of big challenges, each of which can be addressed. “First, we must understand that our food system is a major cause of environmental degradation and of climate change. It is both causing massive environmental degradation and is itself vulnerable to the damage it is causing. We must stop the bad practices and the vicious circle where agriculture is degrading the environment and actually causing the problems.” 

Sachs does not advocate any particular method of farming, or the best crops to grow. He has argued strongly in the past that it is not enough for the world to just grow more food, but that people need good nutrition and that countries must both stabilize populations ― through family planning and education ― and reduce the ecological consequences of food production. His suggestions include using farming that preserves the soil through no-till methods and limiting fertilizer use, payments to farmers not to deforest, better fertilizers and a shift away from eating meat.

The system may be broken, but Sachs remains an optimist because, he says, all the individual problems have proven solutions that can be resolved and scaled up. “We see lots of farming communities moving to sustainable practices, using fewer chemical inputs, adding resilience to crops. We have the chance to make a breakthrough to renewable energy and to stop the trend of global warming.”

He thinks that public education and individual change are key. “We must understand what is a healthy diet, and how it can be produced around the world ... We must make significant changes in our lives. Public understanding drives political will.”

“I see many positive trends in rich countries. People are becoming more aware of diet. Nutritionists say that we must eat less meat because of its environmental burden. This would conserve ecosystems while improving human health. We need to eat less processed food and move from a diet of animal protein to one of plant-based proteins.”

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