British scientists claim tackling obesity is “crucial for food security”

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 19th June 2012

A study in BMC Public Health, has found that it is not just population size, but the weight of individuals, that is putting pressure on the world’s resources. A team of researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, led by Professor Ian Roberts, has concluded that increasing population fatness could have the same implications for world food energy demands as an extra half a billion people living on Earth.

However, the study appears to be mixing environmental and moral arguments into the obesity policy debate.

Using data on body mass index and height distribution from the 2005 World Health Organization Surveillance of Risk Factors (SuRF) Report, the researchers calculated average adult body mass as 62kg, and the global adult human biomass as about 287 million tonnes. Of this total, 15 million tonnes were due the overweight, and 3.5 million tonnes to obesity. These figures are an underestimate of the current situation.

The research said that one tonne of human biomass has equivalent energy requirements to about 12 adults in the U.S. or 17 adults in Asia.

Sarah Walpole, a hospital doctor who worked on the research with the LSHTM team, said, “Our results emphasise the importance of looking at biomass rather than just population numbers when considering the ecological impact of a species, especially humans.”

The study states that the concept of biomass is rarely applied to the human species. This is may be due to the concerning ethical implications of declaring, as the study does, that “increasing human body mass ought to be taken into account when evaluating future trends and planning for future resource challenges”.

In arguing that the overweight and obese are consuming more than their fair share of global resources, the study endows excess human weight with moral connotations, which should be carefully questioned.

Australian food lawyer, Joe Lederman of FoodLegal, said that the credibility of the study was undermined by a need to question its moral position. “Moralising that fat people are bad on environmental grounds, or saying they use more of the Earth’s resources is treading on dangerous ground,” he said.

“The history of eugenics and racial hygiene ought to provide sufficient lessons to those who are now advocating against fat people on moral or environmental grounds. It is going well outside the scientific scope of nutritional expertise or scholarly research for disease-reduction measures that help the fatter person,” Mr Lederman said.