Obesity: A Global Threat

We're eating too much. Can our planet handle the fallout?
Tipping scales means a greater strain on environmental resources. (Science Photo Library/Getty Images)
Jun 18, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Obesity is a hefty problem. Not only does it affect the standard of living for those who struggle with it, but it also comes with a sizeable price tag: in 2008, estimates for the annual healthcare cost of obesity in the U.S. alone hovered at $147 billion a year. According to a new study, there's one more ripple effect of ballooning body mass: compromised food security on a global scale.

Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) say that increasing average body mass could have the same implications for world food energy demands as adding an extra one billion people to the planet. 

According to the study, the world's adult population weighs 287 million tons. Fifteen million of that amount is due to being overweight and 3.5 million is due to obesity, reports the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH).

The United Nations predicts that by 2050, the planet could be home to an additional 2.3 billion people. Already taxing world resources, the ecological demands of a rapidly populating planet will be made worse by increases in body mass.

So who's to blame?

The U.S. takes the cake in world obesity figures, with more than one-third of the world population's body weight and only 10 percent of the world's people, reports The Daily. If everyone ate like Americans do, the total human biomass would increase by 58 million tons. But other industrialized countries aren't far behind, generating fear among researchers that global food supply will diminish and people will starve.

Americans are carrying around an average 81 kg. Britons aren't far behind at 75, while the average across Europe is 70.8 kg. Meanwhile, Asia weighs in at an average of 57.7 kg. per person. Bangladesh is at the far end of the scale: 20.2 Bangladeshi collectively weigh as much as only 12 Americans.

Elsewhere, numbers are rapidly rising. Obesity seems to correspond with fossil-fuel use, so industrialized and industrializing countries fare the worst for obesity rates.

"China's getting fat really quickly; India's getting fat really quickly," said Professor Ian Roberts, who led the research at LSHTM. He says that addressing obesity will be a crucial component in the pursuit of environmental sustainability and the conservation of ecological resources.

"Everyone accepts that population growth threatens global environmental sustainability," he said, according to the SMH. "Our study shows that population fatness is also a major threat. Unless we tackle both population and fatness, our chances are slim."

Are you surprised to discover how much impact our weight has on global food security?

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