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Starvation Or Obesity

The Cape Times published here in South Africa has an inadvertent juxtaposition of stories on September 5, 2006.

First there is a big article entitled “Global food scarcity crisis looms, warn UN experts.” This article explains:

Food supplies are shrinking alarmingly around the globe, plunging the world into its greatest crisis for more than 30 years.

You might ask why you didn’t notice this horrid crisis? The article has the answer:

The gathering crisis has been largely unnoticed because, for once, the harvests have failed in rich countries such as the United States and Australia, which normally export food, rather than in the world’s hungriest ones. So it has not immediately resulted in mass starvation in Africa or Asia.

Well, let us be thankful for that.

Basically the article goes on to explain that for the past year, as with six of the past seven years, less food was produced than was consumed, with the world drawing down stocks to cover the balance.

Since this can’t be sustained, we have the global food scarcity.

The article is filled with weird assertions such as that “Prices have already risen by up to 20% this year” —without identifying which prices, for what?

The article never wrestles with questions such as how accurate our numbers are or whether there are alternative reasons, such as the move to “just in time” inventory systems that could be responsible for these numbers.

It is not only alarmist, but lacking faith in human ingenuity. It recalls Malthus and the infamous “Club of Romereport, both of which forecast our doom based on crude extrapolations.

It is such poor journalism to report, unchallenged, these bizarre assertions that one could cry for the state of journalism.

But the fact that only a few pages after this piece, there are not one but two stories, both derived from the proceedings of the 10th International Congress on Obesity in Sydney, Australia, which brings the whole situation past tragedy and into farce.

After all, we just read that famine is upon us, and we now read that, in the words of one headline: “World’s agricultural policies produce obesity”. As the article explains:

“The over-production of oil, fat and sugar, largely due to government subsidies to protect farm industry revenues, has contributed over decades to the health crisis we have today.”

And in the next article, the headline advises us that “Fat is ‘brain food’, says expert”, and goes on to explain:

“…the human body has evolved to conserve energy in times of famine, an obesity expert said yesterday.”

These articles, once again, are not so much journalism as press releases; they fail to bring into the equation any alternative views or explanations. For example, it may be true that obesity is a big problem. It may also be true that people, on average, are living longer than ever if they don’t get AIDS.

Obesity may be explained by the body’s propensity to hold onto calories, but also may be explained by declines in the level of physical activity.

One reason the public is often simple-minded on these issues is that the media is simple-minded on these issues. So on one page we have extremism that we are all bound to starve and on the next that we are all bound to be obese.

Death by starvation or obesity-related disease — they share only one characteristic: Both forms of sensationalism can help sell newspapers. Let the reader beware.

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