Summer 2016

Make Food An Election Issue

A message from the dean of the Friedman School

140601_14287_mozaffarian049.jpgAmid the hoopla of the 2016 elections, many important topics have been discussed: jobs, Syria, taxes, immigration, health care, education, the courts, banking, our relations with other nations, to name a few. While the candidates’ responses may not always have been satisfying, the issues have at least been raised and considered. Yet, astonishingly, the 2016 elections so far have ignored the one topic that is among the biggest challenges and opportunities of our time: our food.

Poor nutrition is the leading cause of poor health in this country and around the world, causing more deaths and disability than any other factor. Our food system is also the leading cause of environmental impact: 70 percent of water use, 90 percent of tropical deforestation, immense challenges to the oceans and as many greenhouse gas emissions as all the world’s transportation combined.

How we eat is also a leading economic issue. The U.S. spends $3 trillion a year on health care—nearly one of every five dollars in the entire economy. From small businesses to multinational companies, crushing health-care costs are a major obstacle to growth and success. Remember Congress’ great budget sequestration battle of 2013? That dispute was over $85 billion a year. Alone, diabetes and prediabetes—mostly preventable through better lifestyle—cost $322 billion a year. Add other diet-related illness, such as heart disease, cancers, cognitive decline and obesity, and we easily reach $1 trillion annually. Imagine how much less wrangling and partisanship there would be, and how much more achievement, by returning all these dollars to the national coffers. Improving our food system, and how we eat, should be a bipartisan priority.

This is nutrition’s time. The public is deeply interested in healthy and sustainable eating. Many across industry recognize that their success depends on being part of the solution. Advances in nutrition science and policy have positioned us to deliver major breakthroughs toward a healthier and more prosperous America.

During these elections, our food system should be front and center, receiving abundant attention from candidates, the media, debate moderators and the public. When we elect leaders who are nutrition-aware, we can bring together modern science and diverse stakeholders to achieve real change. Learning from past successes, we could accomplish in 10 years what required 50 years for tobacco reduction, 70 years for car safety, and 100-plus years for water and sanitation. As we enter the last lap of the 2016 elections, it’s time for food to be a major issue on the table.

Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H.

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