Brown School faculty part of international obesity report

Obesity, climate change, hunger all part of ‘Global Syndemic’ and should be considered one challenge

Ross Hammond, the Betty Bofinger Brown Associate Professor, and Peter Hovmand, director of the Social System Design Lab and professor of practice, both of the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, took part in the international Lancet Commission on Obesity.

The commission released its major new report Jan. 27. The main takeaway?

Obesity, climate change and hunger are inextricably linked and must be fought as one challenge.


“The obesity pandemic, the undernutrition pandemic and global climate change are deeply inter-related — they are driven by common underlying complex systems, and may be amenable to common ‘double’ and ‘triple-duty’ solutions, which complex systems science can help us to implement,” Hammond said.

“A secondary message is that bottom-up, community-driven change and demand for policy shifts is extremely important,” he said. “This message is very well aligned with both Peter’s work and my own, and especially with the NIH-funded COMPACT (Childhood Obesity Modeling for Prevention and Community Transformation) study that we both have contributed to over the past five years.”

The commission report contains several main findings, including:

  • The global interplay of obesity, undernutrition and climate change represents what’s being called “The Global Syndemic,” and is the greatest threat to human and planetary health, affecting most people in every country and region.
  • Powerful opposition by commercial vested interests, lack of political leadership and insufficient societal demand for change are preventing action on The Global Syndemic, with rising rates of obesity and greenhouse gas emissions, and stagnating rates of undernutrition.
  • New social movement for change and radical rethink of the relationship between policymakers, business, governance and civil society is urgently needed.
  • The commission calls for a global treaty to limit the political influence of Big Food (a proposed Framework Convention on Food Systems — modeled on global conventions on tobacco and climate change); redirection of $5 trillion in government subsidies away from harmful products and towards sustainable alternatives; and advocacy from civil society to break decades of policy inertia.

Malnutrition in all its forms, including undernutrition and obesity, is by far the biggest cause of ill-health and premature death globally, the report suggests. Both undernutrition and obesity are expected to be made significantly worse by climate change.

A key recommendation from the commission is the call to establish a new global treaty on food systems to limit the political influence of Big Food — the world’s food manufacturing giants and the industries that support them — that the report suggests has used multiple strategies to obstruct obesity prevention.

Brown School doctoral student Alex Morshed served as a commission fellow and contributed to review and preparation of the content.