Junk Food Taxes Gain Advocate In United Nations

Most of the overlap between the food world and the United Nations' mandate is about life-threatening hunger. The UN steps in to facilitate the distribution of food aid to those in desperate need. But a recent report from Olivier de Schutter [pdf], the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to food, shows that when it comes to the UN's activities in the food world, feast can be just as important as famine.

"The right to food cannot be reduced to a right not to starve," the report explains. "States have a duty to protect the right to an adequate diet, in particular by regulating the food system."

In other words, letting the food industry create an environment that makes citizens unhealthy constitutes a violation of human rights. And the report argues that many Western governments have done just that by allowing "agrifood" businesses to sell fattening foods at low prices.

The report notes that over one billion people -- one in seven alive today -- are overweight or obese, a major factor behind the growth of many noncommunicable diseases, like heart disease and diabetes. Such diseases have so far gone relatively unaddressed by the UN because they were not included in the organization's Millenium Development Goals, which have guided its activities since 2000.

But de Schutter's report isn't just a series of complaints. It also suggests solutions. Some are relatively uncontroversial. He argues governments should ban trans fats, regulate the marketing of unhealthy foods and encourage the spread of farmers markets and other access points for fresh produce.

The main suggestion of the report, though, is that governments implement taxes on soda and junk food, a perennially contentious topic. Specifically, the report recommends a 10 percent tax on soda and other foods "high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sodium and sugar."

The report cites studies that have indicated that such a tax would reduce soda consumption by eight to 10 percent. And a recent analysis of soda taxes predicted that the measure would raise billions that could be dedicated to the support of health measures. Still, critics say such taxes are regressive and an unwelcome intrusion by an overactive nanny state.

Either way, de Schoutter's decision to discuss the dangers of obesity in a forum more often reserved for starvation is a sign of how serious the problem has become.


A HuffPost headline for this article originally misidentified the nature of the UN's support for junk food taxes. It has since been changed.