What’s the Connection Between Diabetes and The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico - text overlay on blue graphic

What’s the Connection Between Diabetes and The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico?

Solutionaries see connections that help them solve problems on a systems level

It’s no secret that type 2 diabetes is on the rise among children in the U.S. It’s also no secret that there’s a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where the ocean has become lifeless. However, that these two seemingly unconnected problems have many of the same causes is not well known, but it should be.

These are huge problems. Type 2 diabetes has long-term health consequences for children, negatively impacting their lives physically and emotionally, and between 2002 and 2015, it increased about 4.8 percent per year (and much more during the pandemic). And ocean dead zones are what they sound like: places where marine animals have died, with large-scale impacts on ocean ecosystems.

How did type 2 diabetes become so prevalent among children in the United States over the past several decades, disproportionately affecting kids living in poverty?

Briefly, industrial agriculture, the Farm Bill, corporate lobbyists, and taxpayer subsidies have made the foods that contribute most significantly to type 2 diabetes—refined carbohydrates, fast food, processed and red meat, sugary beverages, and junk food—low in price by externalizing the true costs, while fresh fruits and vegetables remain costly because they are not subsidized. Many public school cafeterias have also become the dumping ground for foods that aren’t healthy, accustoming children to diets that may be harmful. Couple these food-system problems with an advertising and legal system that permits ads for unhealthy foods that target children and their families, an educational system that has reduced time for fitness and outdoor play, and a media system with enticing options that lead to inactivity, and you have a recipe for the increased incidence of type 2 diabetes among children.

What is causing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?

The dead zone is caused by “nutrients”—particularly nitrogen and phosphorus—that flow from midwest farming states into the Mississippi River. When that water enters the ocean, it causes algal blooms that deplete oxygen. The resulting hypoxic sea then leads to the decline and sometimes complete absence of marine animals, especially fish.

Where does all this nitrogen and phosphorus come from? Primarily from fertilizer run-off used for growing crops such as soy and corn, the great majority of which are fed to livestock for meat production. Because it takes many pounds of feed crops to produce a single pound of meat, vastly more crops are grown using vastly more fertilizer than if we ate plants directly. And because fast food is so popular, much of that fertilizer is supporting the production of burgers and chicken nuggets. As for junk food, the oils and high-fructose corn syrup that are produced by a portion of those large-scale farms are fueling the junk food industry as well.

In other words, the agricultural systems that are causing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico are the same systems contributing to the increased rates of type 2 diabetes in children. Does it make any sense to sicken children and kill the oceans for the profits of a few and the short-term pleasures of admittedly tasty but unhealthy food?

And if it doesn’t make sense, how can we use a solutionary mindset to solve these interconnected problems that stem from the same causes?

A solutionary approach to solving problems

To solve complex, systemic problems, we need to understand not only their interconnected root and systemic causes; we also need to look for leverage points where implementing a solution can have far-reaching positive impacts.

To be defined as truly solutionary, solutions must solve the problem at the root or systemic level as well as do the most good and least harm for people, animals, and the environment.

In the solutionary process, we:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Investigate its causes and impacts.
  3. Innovate solutionary solutions after choosing a powerful leverage point.
  4. Implement the most feasible, solutionary solution we’ve developed.

This is not a quick process, especially when it comes to complex interconnected problems like the rise of type 2 diabetes and an ocean dead zone. But for the sake of illustrating what we could do next to solve these thorny and far-reaching problems, I’ll offer some ideas. After we’ve done careful research, talked to experts and stakeholders, and come to a sufficiently clear understanding of the causes and impacts, we look for the leverage points mentioned above. We might find them in the following:

  • Political, agricultural, legal, and economic systems that shift the true costs of unhealthy foods so that the least-healthy foods have also become the least expensive to purchase. These are also the same systems that subsidize farming practices that permit polluting run-off to enter waterways and allow the agriculture industry to externalize the negative impacts of these practices.
  • Legal and advertising systems that promote and permit the advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages to children and their families.
  • Economic, government, social, and city planning systems that have turned some neighborhoods into food deserts where healthy, affordable food is harder to come by.
  • The National School Lunch Program, which, while having a critical role in providing free and low-cost food to children in school, is enmeshed with the agricultural, political, and economic systems that promote agricultural products. This has led to many schools becoming a repository for high-fat and processed foods, accustoming children to poor eating habits from a young age.

What solutions might we devise at these different leverage points that might help solve the rise in type 2 diabetes in children and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico? We might work to:

  • Recommend and support legislation that stops subsidies for unhealthy foods while simultaneously working to pass legislation that subsidizes fresh fruits and vegetables so they are widely accessible.
  • Recommend and support legislation regulating the advertising of unhealthy foods to children and pass laws to prevent agricultural practices that result in polluting run-off.
  • Overhaul the School Lunch Program so that only healthy foods are served to students, and ensure these foods are free or at reduced cost for all in need.
  • Eliminate junk food, fast food, candy and cakes, soda, sweetened beverages, and red and processed meats in schools, children’s hospitals, community centers, and other places where children have access.
  • Include daily accessible and fun exercise and fitness programs in schools that don’t exclude kids who may not excel at competitive team sports or who have disabilities.

Try using this process wherever you notice problems. Start small: In other words, not with problems as big as the ones in this post! You might even use the solutionary process to address a very simple problem in your household. Identify the problem carefully. Investigate its causes deeply, talking to all the stakeholders you can. Look for where you have leverage to intervene. Develop solutions. Collaborate to implement them. Be solutionary.

To teach the solutionary process using the example of the dead zone and rise in type 2 diabetes, find a solutionary unit here.

Originally posted on Psychology Today on February 1


References

Orr, D., (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education, the Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press.
Center for Disease Control (2022). Rates of New Diagnosed Cases of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Continue to Rise Among Children, Teens
Johns Hopkins Medicine (2022). Significant Boost in Rates of Type 2 Diabetes Among Children During COVID-19 Pandemic
Bruckner, M. What is the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone? MLER
O’Hearn, M., et. al. (2023). Incident type 2 diabetes attributable to suboptimal diet in 184 countries. Nature Medicine.
Mayo Clinic. Type 2 Diabetes in Children: Symptoms and Causes.
Allen, A., (2011). U.S. touts fruit and vegetables while subsidizing animals that become meat. Washington Post.
Gaddis, J. (2020). The Big Business of School Meals. Kappan.
Kosar, K. (2016). Why Are Farmers Telling Kids What to Eat? Politico.