Obesity driving global hunger, ecological collapse: study

The recent milestone of Planet Earth reaching 7 billion people unleashed the predictable tsunami of Malthusian claptrap. Now a new study documents the obvious—the problem is not how many people, but the sheer acreage of human flesh on the planet, regardless of how many bodies it is distributed amongst. From Live Science, June 17:

Humanity is 17 million tons (15 million metric tons) overweight, according to a study that calculates the adult portion of the human race’s collective weight at 316 million tons (287 million metric tons).

That’s the equivalent of about 170 military aircraft carriers of extra weight. Or in people weight, it’s like having an extra 242 million people of average body mass on the planet.

This is more than just an attempt to make the human race feel uncomfortable about its waistline; looking at the collective mass of humanity can improve understanding of the effects of population growth, contends a team of European researchers.

“[United Nations] world population projections suggest that by 2050 there could be an additional 2.3 billion people,” they write in research published online Sunday (June 17) in the journal BMC Public Health. “The ecological implications of rising population numbers will be exacerbated by increases in average body mass.”

The argument is simple. More body mass takes more energy to maintain and move; therefore as someone’s weight goes up, so do the calories they need to exist. This means increases in population counts don’t tell the whole story when it comes to demand for resources, according to the authors.

“Although the largest increase in population numbers is expected in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, our results suggest that population increases in the USA will carry more weight than would be implied by numbers alone,” they write.

The United States ranked at the top of the “Heaviest 10” category, while the “Lightest 10” list is composed entirely of African and Asian nations. For example, North America has 6 percent of the world population but 34 percent of biomass due to obesity. Meanwhile, Asia has 61 percent of the world population but just 13 percent of biomass due to obesity.

Using data from around the world for 2005, researchers used body mass indexes (BMI, or a measure of body fatness) and height distributions to estimate average adult body mass. They then multiplied these results by population size to get a total mass, referred to as biomass. They evaluated body mass using BMI thresholds of greater than 25 for overweight and greater than 30 for obese. The collective mass of the adult population in 2005 due to obesity was 3.9 million tons (3.5 million metric tons), they calculated.

Globally, average body mass globally for an individual was calculated at 137 pounds (62 kilograms).

“Our scenarios suggest that global trends of increasing body mass will have important resource implications and that unchecked, increasing BMI could have the same implications for world energy requirements as an extra 473 million people,” they write. “Tackling population fatness may be critical to world food security and ecological sustainability.”

Emphasis added. We are reminded of a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

No discourse on energy should end without noting that Americans are some 6 billion pounds overweight. We carry enough excess preloaded energy—rolls and slabs of fat, layered on our bellies and butts—to sustain the entire population of Afghanistan for a year. Here’s another way you could look at it: much of our excess fat comes from the animals we’ve eaten, which got their energy from the plants they ate, which got their energy from the sunlight they absorbed, which could be traced back to the fusion of hydrogen into helium in the core of the Sun. So, if nothing else, American bodies are formidable repositories of solar energy. Too bad we don’t all tap into those “strategic reserves” and walk off our current energy crisis.

See our last posts on global ecological collapse and peak food.

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  1. Folk Devils and Moral Panics
    The current global food crisis has little to do with a production/consumption gap, and it certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the ridiculous ‘obesity epidemic’ moral panic. There is more than enough food produced in the world for the current population regardless of body shape.

    Even if we were to round up all the fat people on Earth and have them shot, we’d still have the same food situation on this planet. But on the other hand, if we were reduce the massive amount of waste inherent in our food economy and create adequate systems of distribution, we can let those pesky fatties live and still feed everyone.

    Stop throwing out countless tons of food? Nah! Stop burning food for fuel? Fuck off! Stop using acreage that can feed people to feed cattle? I said get out of my house! Actually get surplus production to starving people? Why bother? Lets blame it all on obesity instead and call it a day. It worked for rising healthcare costs, right? Maybe next year we’ll find a way to blame fat people for erectile dysfunction and Obama’s drone policy.

    I know that it is easy to single out the mass media’s favorite folk devil du jour, but this is far from the clear-eyed analysis that I have come to expect WW4 Report over the years. This reminds me of the old Russian saying- “If there is no water in the faucet, this means that the Jews have drunk it all.” I am very disappointed in you for reporting such toxic nonsense in such a wholly uncritical manner.

    1. Obesity is a symptom
      We agree the analysis is oversimplified. We aren’t sure there is more than enough “food” produced to feed everyone (e.g., Ethiopia exports coffee—is that a “food”?), but we certainly agree the planet is capable of supporting its current population if not for the factors you delineate (which are all endemic to capitalism). Obesity is also a symptom of this system (or, rather, the prevalence of obesity is a symptom of this system). We were just amused at how this perspective challenges the Malthusian dogma. That’s why we added the Neil deGrasse Tyson quote. We applaud you for being the one reader to see the flaws here.