A conversation with Dr. Amos Laar: Food Policies and Obesity-related Projects
Very pleased to meet you and thank you for sharing your work with ECO/ICO2020 delegates. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work in NCDs?
I am a Senior Lecturer of the University of Ghana, Accra, Ghana, and President of the African Nutrition Society. I received academic training in Nutrition, Public Health, and Bioethics. In my independent scholarship, I draw on theoretical, conceptual, and methodological perspectives from these fields to understand how physical environment, social environment, and upstream factors affect health. Currently, my research focuses on two distinct, yet related areas of public health – bioethics (ethics & public health; food ethics; health & rights); public health nutrition (food literacy, nutrition-related non-communicable diseases, and the nexus between food environment and health).
I spent most part of the past decade
exploring the socio-cultural, socio-ethical, and medico-ethical dimensions of HIV. In the last few years, however, I have been working with colleagues to champion the cause of obesity and nutrition-related NCDs prevention in Africa. Some of our NCD-related work has looked at improving management and control of specific NCDs including hypertension through the community-based hypertension improvement program – ComHIP. Funded by the Novartis Foundation, ComHIP tested a new model to detect, diagnose and treat hypertension earlier by placing screening points in local shops and businesses and strengthening existing facilities. The ComHIP results demonstrate the huge potential of community-based care and suggest that this approach could save millions of lives if replicated in other countries and for other non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
More recently, my research in NCDs has been centered on improving food environments and supporting policy actions to create enabling environments for healthy food consumption. Two of these projects, the UK-AID/Gates Foundation-funded “Dietary Transitions in Ghanaian Cities Project,” and the GCRF-funded “Dietary Transitions in African Cities Project,” aimed to identify how social, and physical environments drive consumption of energy-dense nutrient-poor foods and beverages. As part of this work, my colleagues and I were involved in benchmarking Ghana’s policy actions for creating healthier food environments in Ghana, an exercise which revealed several gaps in implementing food environment policies, and opportunities for improving the country’s food environments.
I am currently leading an IDRC-funded project, which aims to measure and support public sector actions that create healthy food marketing and food provision environments for children and adolescents to prevent obesity and nutrition-related NCDs. Code-named MEALS4NCDs Project, which stands for ‘providing Measurement Evaluation, Accountability and Leadership Support (MEALS) for NCDs prevention’, the Project focuses on food promotion (marketing to children restrictions), and food provisioning (e.g. improving school nutrition policies/environment).
The multi-stakeholder traction of your recent project MEALS4NCDs sounds exciting. Which actors are involved, and how have you galvanised support across a diverse range of stakeholders?
Our work in NCDs, and insights from other studies have shown that addressing the failures in food systems and combating NCDs require partnerships that transcend traditional governmental health sectors. We are therefore engaging a diverse group of stakeholders from government, international organisations, academia, civil society groups, human rights advocacy groups, and the media to ensure that our work has wide cross-sector support and is sustainable. At its launch in Accra, Ghana, overs 50 participants comprising representatives of 12 Government Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs), representatives of United Nations agencies, of civil society, and Ghana Parliamentary Select Committee on Health gathered. We have been able to garner the support of these stakeholders by making a strong case for NCDs prevention using evidence-based research, aligning our actions with recent Global Political Declarations and Resolutions, Best Buys for NCDs prevention, and most importantly engaging stakeholders in the research process, right from the start. Engaging the right stakeholders is a prerequisite for successful implementation, exploitation of findings, and institutionalization of the project into existing systems
The notion of a "best buys" approach is really compelling. During a time when national and local government are financially strapped, It sounds like many nations could learn from this approach.
Yes, the economic burden of NCDs is just as much of a concern as the public health burden, and that is why the "best buys" approach for NCDs prevention is laudable. In my current research, my colleagues and I plan to activate the entire arsenal of food environment innovations to combat NCDs. While the "best buys" approach is very useful in the face of economic difficulties, I will encourage researchers and policymakers to prioritise these interventions and adapt them to their national contexts in order to realise their full impact. Also, I believe that it is acceptable to implement interventions that do not necessarily meet the "best buys" criteria, provided they are appropriate for and beneficial within the local context.
Upon sharing with other nations, we find that our MEALS4NCDs prevention project has pan African prospects. In 2020, we will convene researchers in the African sub-region whose work relate directly to improving food environments, to share experiences, challenges and opportunities. At this meeting a key group of experts will be identified to form an Africa Food Environment Research Network (FERN). FERN members would be encouraged to implement food environment improvement actions in their respective countries. It is further hoped that such a network will improve South-South FE research collaboration, and will lay the foundation for robust and innovative implementation food environment research and practice in Africa.
Biography of Dr. Amos Laar
Dr. Amos Laar has academic training in Nutrition, Public Health, and Bioethics. In his independent scholarship, he draws on theoretical, conceptual, and methodological perspectives from the social sciences, bioethics, and public health to understand how physical environment, social environment, as well as structural forces affect health. Currently, his research focuses on two distinct, yet related areas of public health – bioethics (ethics & public health; health & human rights, food ethics, & nutrition rights); public health nutrition (food literacy, nutrition-related non-communicable diseases, and the nexus between food environment and health).
He has been a Principal/Co-Investigator of over 20 successful research grants at the University of Ghana. He has led/co-led such projects as the HIV/AIDS Interactive Training, Education and Development Center Project (which developed interventions to increase uptake of HIV testing, and reproductive health literacy of students and staff of the University of Ghana); the “Community-based Hypertension Improvement Project” – ComHIP (which engaged the private sector and utilized ICT to improve hypertension management and control in Ghana); the UK-AID/Gates Foundation-funded “Dietary Transitions in Ghanaian Cities”, as well as the GCRF-funded “Dietary Transitions in African Cities Project” (both projects aimed to identify how social, and physical environments drive consumption of energy dense nutrient-poor foods and beverages). He is currently a Co-Principal Investigator and Ghana Lead of an NIH-funded project which will establish a master programme in Bioethics at the University of Ghana. He is also the Principal Investigator of an IDRC-funded project, the MEALS4NCDs Project, which is “measuring the healthiness of Ghanaian children’s food environments to prevent obesity and non-communicable diseases’’.
His international engagements in public health nutrition include his participation in the 66th Session of the UN-General Assembly Meeting in New York, 2011; in the UN Economic Commission for Africa Expert Group Meeting in Addis, Ethiopia, 2017; in the FAO’s Future of Food Symposium, Rome, 2019, and several other international meetings. Dr. Laar was recently recognized in the Lancet, for his efforts at combating nutrition-related NCDs in Ghana:
Dr. Laar publishes for both academic and non-academic audiences. His scholarly works include over 60 peer-reviewed publications (one book, five book chapters, 62 journal articles).