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An opinion article by FAO-Director General José Graziano da Silva

Nutrition is a public issue
By José Graziano da Silva
Adapted from Opinion-Editorial originally published on November 18, 2014, by Correio Braziliense

In 1990, one in five people suffered from hunger in the world. A frightening figure of more than one billion people had no access to a regular, decent and sufficient diet.

Today 805 million out of seven billion inhabitants are undernourished: 11% of the total. It remains unacceptable that one in eight people still suffers from hunger in the twenty-first century. But it is undeniable that advances have been made: 210 million people less are hungry, the equivalent of Brazil’s entire population.

More than that. The nature of the equation has changed: hunger in our time results mainly from access barriers and no longer from food shortages. The available knowledge and technology can feed twice the world’s current population.

The existence of a wall that separates those who eat from those who are deprived of nutrition is even more senseless. This disparity is emphasized even further with new imbalances/discrepancies: while hunger is decreasing, obesity has increased dramatically and has now affects half a billion humans.

The intertwining between hunger and obesity, often in the same country, and most commonly in middle-income countries, illustrates the scope of policies and public-private partnerships that need to be mobilized in the establishment of food and nutrition security in the twenty-first century.

It is precisely this confluence of factors that magnifies the importance of the Second International Conference on Nutrition, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), scheduled from 19 to 21 November in FAO headquarters in Rome, 22 years after its inaugural event.

The socio-economic cost of malnutrition increases the urgency for action. Hunger is responsible for half of all deaths in children under five years of age. The scale of obesity is no less daunting: it is responsible for nearly three million deaths per year, reaching epidemic proportions on the planet, according to WHO.

Malnutrition generates annual losses of up to 5% of global GDP, up to USD 3.5 trillion in productivity and health expenditure.

There is no quick fix capable of addressing targets so dramatic and different in nature. But the first, critical step is to address food and nutrition as a public issue, a strategic element for the development of nations. Hence, it is also strategic for international cooperation

This is what the ICN2 conference being organized by FAO and WHO: pin nutrition in a public issue.

Nutrition education as a state priority, on the one hand, and access to a healthy and balanced diet from childhood, on the other, form the solid building blocks of the responses that challenge us.

The Brazilian experience emerges as a global reference on this path and its school meal program is a variable that explains the success achieved by the country. Every day, 43 million Brazilian children and adolescents have access to a school meals programme in which the Government invests more than USD 3 billion per year.

The relationship between food, school and public accountability adds here another crucial feature: since 2009, it is required by law that a third of this demand is met by the production of local agriculture. This synergy also stimulates the local development and the provision of traditional foods, restoring one of the links between the fight against hunger and nutritional imbalances of modern life.

In any country, the strengthening of family farming is one of the antidotes to a diet rich in calories but low in nutrients that devastates health in modern society. By promoting the recovery of local diets and flavors, we value the local cuisine, culture and customs and stimulate the consumption of fresh food and healthier diets.

But this is no silver bullet either. The food industry also has, and will continue to play a decisive role in modern nutrition. The challenge of harmonizing the return of food production companies and the promotion of a balanced diet is far from contradictory. Increasingly, business logic is responding to consumer interest for healthier meals that will contribute to a better quality of life. This will be an important area for investment and research in the food industry of the twenty-first century.

What the Brazilian action signals is the opportunity for public policies to accelerate a process towards food and nutrition security. This is exactly why it can induce private investment to assume the full extent of its responsibility for nutritional balance in our time and ensure the conditions for family farmers to achieve their full potential in promoting the future we want.