Second whammy in developing countries

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — Obesity is emerging as an increasingly troublesome but still little understood problem in the developing world with significant potential negative ramifications, according to a report published by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the main concern of the developing countries remains finding ways to curb food insecurity, hunger and associated diseases, these countries increasingly need to face the problems of obesity and obesity-related diseases, said Stacey Rosen and Shahla Shapouri, economists with the E.R.S.

Ms. Rosen and Ms. Shapouri’s findings were published in "Obesity in the Midst of Unyielding Food Insecurity in Developing Countries" in the September issue of Amber Waves, an E.R.S. periodical.

The escalation of food prices and its effects on food security in the developing world may further push issues of obesity into the background, the authors said. Nearly 1 billion people were estimated to be undernourished in 2007 and are facing increasingly higher prices.

Noting that the coexistence of obesity and food insecurity may be confusing, the E.R.S. said income levels vary widely in the developing world. The disparities exist both between countries and within countries.

For example, the term "developing world" is a broad one, encompassing at one end a country like Ethiopia with $124 in per capita income per year in 2005 and Singapore at the other end with per capita income at $24,000.

Looking at disparities within countries, the authors said that in Guatemala, the poorest 20% of the population earns less than 3% of the country’s total income while the wealthiest 20% earns 64% of the income. Such a spread is common in the developing world, they said, translating into similar disparities in purchasing power.

"In Guatemala, for example, the lowest income quintile consumed an estimated 75% of the daily nutritional requirement in 2007, while the highest income quintile exceeded the nutritional requirement by nearly 30%."

Many factors contributed to rising obesity rates in the developing world. Average per capita food consumption increased 28% from 1970 to 2005, three times the rate in the developed world.

This increase was facilitated by rapid economic growth in many developing countries.

"Developing countries’ per capita income almost tripled between 1970 and 2005,"the E.R.S. said.

Until recently, this expansion in income was accompanied by food prices that were not rising, making it easier for people to consume more.

"The recent, well-publicized run up in food prices was preceded by several decades of declining real food prices (adjusted for inflation)," the E.R.S. said. "In 2000, real world prices for rice, sugar and soybean oil were less than 40% of 1970 levels. Real beef prices in 2000 were about half of 1970 levels while wheat prices were 60%. Although food prices have increased since 2004, they remain below 1970 levels in real terms."

Against this backdrop, per capita intake in developing countries rose to 2,722 calories per day in 2005, versus 2,134 calories in 1970. Citing the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a minimum of 2,100 calories per day is recommended for daily intake.

Urbanization has contributed to a shift in diets. As populations have migrated to cities, they rely less on home-grown or locally-grown foods and therefore have access to a wider selection of foods.

The authors noted that, as a rule, the more urban a country’s population, the higher the fat intake. For example, the urbanization rate is 67% in Mexico and 92% in Uruguay. Fat intake in Mexico is half that of Uruguay even though per capita income is similar (within 1.5%) in the two countries.

"All urban environments are not the same, and the openness of an economy, access to mass media, particularly television, and marketing systems can also significantly influence consumers’ choices," the authors said.

Also leading to dietary shifts has been the proliferation of supermarkets throughout the world. As a rule, supermarkets offer lower prices than traditional retail stores, the E.R.S. said.

As an example, the authors pointed out that supermarkets held a market share of 10% to 20% in Latin America in the 1980s, a figure that climbed to 50% to 60% in the 1990s and is now approaching the U.S. share of 70% to 80%.

Turning to obesity specifically, the authors said consumption of high-calorie foods, such as fats and sugar, has risen but that income elasticity for these products remains positive.

"Because incomes are projected to rise for almost all developing countries, the role and contribution of these commodities in the diets of these countries is expected to increase," the authors said.

They noted that in contrast to developed countries, where low-income groups is where obesity rates are rising most quickly, in many developing countries the overweight trend is most prevalent among higher income groups.

For example, in North Africa the highest income quintile was estimated to be consuming 3,300 calories per day.

While 982 million people in 70 countries are food insecure, about 370 million, or 12% of the population, consumed at least 2,800 calories per day in 2007.

The authors said the situation appears primed to worsen because of the growing number of overweight children. The World Health Organization said 8% to 9% of children under age 5 in Egypt and Algeria were overweight, close to the 10% estimated for the United States.

While food insecurity remains the main concern of the developing countries the implications of the weight gain should not be dismissed, the authors said. An estimated 25% to 50% of the population of countries like Mexico, Thailand and Tunisia suffer from diabetes.

"The direct cost of obesity is the increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gallbladder disease and cancer," the E.R.S. said. "If current trends continue, health costs for the developing economies could be substantial."

The authors warned that health costs associated with the growing rate of obesity and related diseases may "overwhelm the health care systems of developing countries."

In a brief review of policy options, the authors said nutrition education is poor in many of these countries. Also, children watch television 2 to 4 hours per day, with each hour featuring 20 minutes of advertising. This advertising could be playing a "profound" role in consumer habits, they said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 16, 2008, starting on Page 28. Click here to search that archive.

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