About the Speaker
PROF. AMOS LAAR, FGA
Professor of Public Health Nutrition, University of Ghana School of Public Health, Accra
Amos Laar is a Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the University of Ghana School of Public Health, Accra, Ghana. Educated at Tamale Secondary School, Tamale, the University of Ghana, Legon, and the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, he holds a BSc Degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry; MPH, and PhD Degrees in Public Health, as well as MA in Bioethics. He has also successfully completed the African Nutrition Leadership Program from North-West University, South Africa, and the Executive Leadership Development Program from Harvard Business School, USA.
He spent the decade spanning 2005 and 2015 exploring how the socio-cultural, socio-ethical, and medico-ethical dimensions of public health could be leveraged to promote the health of women living with HIV. Currently, his research and professional practice straddle two distinct, yet related areas of public health – bioethics and public health nutrition. Overall, his work examines how social forces, commercial forces, and structural violence influence realization of health.
He is an active researcher having served as the lead or collaborating researcher of over 25 successful research projects with a total grant value of over 20 million US Dollars. Some of his recent research projects include:
- the IDRC-funded ‘MEALS4NCDs Project’ (PI: Laar) which provides Measurements, Evaluation, Accountability and Leadership Support for NCDs prevention in Ghana.
- the IDRC/Rockefeller Foundation-funded ‘Healthier Diets for Healthy Lives Project’ (PI: Laar), which is supporting Ghana’s Ministry of Health to develop a Nutrient Profiling Model to facilitate the implementation of a bundle of double-duty food-based policies.
- the Advocating for Ghana’s Health Project (PI: Laar) which aimed to create a favorable environment and stakeholder buy-in for a sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax in Ghana.
- the European Commission-Funded AfriFOODlinks Project (Co-I: Laar) which aims to transform urban food environments through effective linkages among 35 partners across 65+ cities in the African and European continents.
Prof. Laar is the PI of the NIH-funded New York University-University of Ghana Research Integrity Training Programme (2018 – 2028), which has facilitated the establishment of the first-ever MSc Programme in Bioethics in Ghana – at the University of Ghana. He has published over 100 peer-reviewed papers in very reputable journals including the Lancet, Health and Place, PLoS One, Advances in Nutrition, Public Health Nutrition, Food Policy.
Prof. Laar avails his expertise to state and non-state actors including civil society organisations and United Nations (UN) Agencies. He advises the Government of Ghana on various public health nutrition issues (including food systems transformation, and development of food-based double-duty policies). In 2011, he was a participant in the UN General Assembly Meeting in New York, USA. He has served as an expert reviewer of WHO guidelines (including guidelines on carbohydrate intake for adults and children; saturated fatty acid and trans-fatty acid intake for adults and children; non-sugar sweetener use; food-based dietary guidelines; low-sodium salt substitutes).
He has served on reputable National and International Committees including his recent curatorial role in Ghana’s Food Systems Transformation Dialogues. Prof. Laar is a member of the Food Systems Countdown Initiative, an effort that is monitoring global food systems transformation.
In 2019, he was recognized in the Lancet (Diabetes and Endocrinology) for his efforts at combating diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Ghana. Recently, he led a coalition of civil society organizations and academics to mount a successful advocacy intervention in support of Ghana’s Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Taxation. He served as the President of the African Nutrition Society from 2016 to 20220. He is a Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Prof. Laar is married to Dr. Matilda Laar, and they are blessed with four children – Amos Ethan, Hans Lael, Elia Zoey, and Ava Chloe.
Synopsis of Lecture
Food and Public Health are inseparable. We talk about food in terms of safe food, healthy food, junk food, unhealthy food, and ultra-processed food. The healthiness of food (or lack thereof) is influenced by multiple factors including food marketing, food fraud, food policy, food politics, food justice, food democracy, and food environments. Of equal importance are the impacts of unhealthy food on human health and planetary health. Such impacts include hunger, and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – obesity, hypertension, stroke, ischemic heart disease, and diabetes.
As is the case in many countries across Africa currently, the cardinal public health problems that Ghana faces are diet-related NCDs amidst food insecurity and micronutrient malnutrition. Over one-third of all adult deaths (most of which are premature) are attributable to diet-related NCDs (stroke, ischemic heart disease, and diabetes). If untamed, NCDs will be the leading cause of death in Ghana by 2030. While the causes of diet-related NCDs are complex, involving multiple interacting risk factors, dietary risk factors such as excessive consumption of too salty, too sugary, too fatty calorie-dense nutrient-poor foods like sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) and other ultra-processed foods are paramount.
Responding to these food and public health challenges can give rise to an array of tensions. These tensions need to be meaningfully balanced. This talk will reassert the links between food and public health and enunciate the tensions. Prof. Laar will explore food from multiple perspectives – historical, political, sociological, philosophical, and public health. He will unpack the current consensus, but also tensions in public health nutrition – including what is considered good food (safe and healthy). He will reaffirm the oft-cited proclamation that “if it’s not safe, it’s not food” and go further to argue that since food must not kill, both unsafe and unhealthy foods are not good foods.
Enriched with lived-experience exemplars, Prof. Laar will share how his context-relevant food environments research, the establishment of public interest coalition, the implementation of evidence-informed advocacy, and scholar activism have valorized and increased demand for healthy food policies (including food-related health taxes) in Ghana. Ghana has recently launched its first-ever food-based dietary guidelines and enacted a tax law that imposes a 20% tax on SSB and other health-harming products. Ghana is also currently developing a double-duty food-based policy bundle (comprising marketing regulations, front-of-pack nutrition labelling policy, food-related fiscal policy, and public food procurement policy).
Journeying through Ghana’s historical and extant food-focused policy, Prof Laar will argue that structural interventions are needed to address the current menace of food-related ill-health. He will call on the government of Ghana to implement comprehensive policy measures – a mix of low-agency and high-agency food policy interventions to inform and empower consumers: to guide and influence consumers; to discourage consumption of unhealthy foods, and to incentivize the consumption of healthier foods. Such actions will make food actors take actions that make unhealthy food unattractive and unavailable, and the converse holds true. It is possible to make healthy food policies nudge the food systems to work for people, profits, prosperity, and the planet.
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