Simon Fraser University sociology professor Gerardo Otero has created a “junk-food-risk index” to determine the implications for countries that rely on imported fast food created by transnational corporations.
“I’m calling this the neoliberal diet, which is heavy on what nutritionists call energy-dense diets—basically diets with a lot of fat and empty calories,” Otero said on February 8 during a panel discussion at SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business on Canada’s role in global food security.
Citing data supplied by governments to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Otero noted that there has been a sharp increase in the consumption of vegetable oils. He argued that “most of these vegetable oils are produced through biotechnology, like transgenic canola, transgenic corn, soy beans, et cetera.”
And he suggested that these vegetable oils are heavily used in the fast-food sector, whose growth has coincided with sharp increases since 1961 in obesity in many countries, including the United States, South Africa, and Brazil. At one point in his lecture, Otero displayed a chart showing that the largest rise has occurred in Mexico, the country of his birth. India, on the other hand, has only seen a two percent increase in obesity.
His index, which he was revealing for the first time, is a composite measurement that distinguishes between “basic foods” and “luxury foods”. Those that comprise 50 percent or more of all caloric intake fall into the “basic” category and are included in the index.
In addition, he takes into account the country’s rate of trade dependency, its degree of income inequality, and a food-uniformity index, which measures the number of food sources that account for more than 50 percent of the national diet.
Otero explained that from the end of the Second World War to the early 1980s, food security focused on agricultural production within countries. He said that since then, the United States and “superstate organizations” have exerted a great deal of effort in opening up this sector to international trade.
“So there was a whole change in rhetoric from self-sufficiency to comparative advantages,” he stated. “So presumably, countries would be better off by opening their borders to trade and achieve food security either through trade or through aid.”
But he questioned whether this has actually led to people around the world enjoying more active and healthy lives.
Otero closed his presentation with a quotation about trade from a Food and Agriculture Organization document published in 2003: “The claim that trade liberalization will bring net gains to the least-developed countries is, at best, questionable, and at worst, outright wrong.”
“So my question to you,” he told the audience, “is what is to be done about this junk-food risk?”