At what point does society change when faced with unpalatable facts? These days, policymakers claim they request fully costed impact assessments. Yet in food, the costs are staggering. So big people turn a blind eye to problems.

Policymakers and industry accept that over-processed foods, laden with sugar or salt, are normal. No wonder vested interests are in a tizzy over Action on Sugar’s simple facts exposing the ubiquity of hidden sugars. And now the WHO has launched a consultation on radically reducing sugar in nutrition guidelines. I welcome this.

“The costs are high, but at what point do we say ‘enough is enough’?”

Let’s pretend for a moment that policymakers really did take note of financial costs in impact assessments. Society would have to change food course.

A Harvard University/World Bank study calculates that from 2010 to 2030, non-communicable diseases will cost a cumulative total of $30 trillion, equivalent to 48% of global GDP in 2010. Within this, cardiovascular disease is set to rise by 22%, or $20,032bn, and diabetes from $500bn to $745bn. The higher impact is expected to be in lower and middle-income countries. The same study estimated that mental health problems will cost an additional $16.1 trillion. Is a future of billions of unhappy people over-eating sugary, fatty, salty foods a good one?

Business optimists, of course, see this as a growth opportunity for medical technology or insurance. But can affluent countries afford enormous healthcare costs, let alone low and middle income ones? In vastly expensive and wasteful private systems, such as the US’s, costs unaffordable to employers are being increasingly transferred to the public purse. Meanwhile, we in the UK are making the public sector pay for bailing out the bankers!

Health is not the food system’s only impact. The UN Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project looked at greenhouse gas emissions, water abstraction, pollution and general waste, to all of which food contributes significantly. These factors cost the world $6,596bn in 2008, equivalent to 10.97% of global GDP that year. By 2050, they’re projected to rise to $28,615bn. These costs are staggering but normalised. At what point do we say ‘enough is enough’?

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University London