Today childhood obesity is widely recognized as a major global health problem in both developed and developing societies. The growing awareness of childhood obesity over the last several decades gathered pace in the early 2000s as manifested by a crescendo of international conferences, non-governmental organization (NGO) initiatives, and public pronouncements. Alarming data show the dramatic rise of childhood obesity rates in developed countries since the 1960s and in developing countries since the 1980s.
The spread of obesity, particularly in developing countries, appears to be linked with concomitant changes in major global economic processes. The interrelated expansion of trade, foreign direct investment, and transnational corporations (TNCs) is particularly important. Around the world, TNCs receive particular attention as purveyors of fast foods, snacks and other highly processed foods. In this paper we outline how the global value chain (GVC) approach, a method used to understand global industry structure in the social sciences, can also be applied to study the linkages between global economic processes and obesity, mainly via shifting food consumption patterns. GVC researchers focus on the role of “lead firms” in global industries, such as the large food and agricultural TNCs like Pepsi, McDonald’s, Kraft, Cargill, and others.
Within the literature on childhood obesity, the forces of globalization are viewed as changing food systems around the world and hence the consumption patterns that may lead to childhood obesity. The availability and diversity of internationally traded food products transform local agricultural and food systems, which are affected by broad “globalization” shifts including urbanization, the rise in incomes, fluctuation in the supply and price of agricultural inputs, and the adoption of Western technologies (Kennedy, Nantel, and Shetty 2004). The expansion of urbanization around the globe is linked to uneven trade and tariff regimes, export dumping, and agricultural subsides in developed economies (Murphy 2002; Pinstrup-Anderson 2001). As the gross national product in developing countries rises due to economic development, the burden of childhood obesity shifts from groups with higher to lower socioeconomic status (Monteiro et al. 2004).
Furthermore, globalization is changing agriculture in developing economies in various ways associated with the switch to modern technologies, including: agrochemicals and hybrid plants; genetically modified foods; the use of food processing designed for uniformity and long shelf-life; and imported oilseeds and vegetable oils with artificial caloric sweeteners (Lang 2004;