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

The Way Forward: Combatting Global Malnutrition
By José Graziano da Silva
Originally published on 24 January, 2015 by the Harvard International Review

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. Although progress has been made since then and 200 million fewer people are hungry, the persistence of hunger and malnutrition is still unacceptable; today 805 million people, or one in nine, are undernourished—this amounts to 11 percent of the global population. At the same time, 161 million children are stunted, 99 million underweight, and 51 million acutely malnourished, while two billion people have one or more micronutrient deficiencies.

The situation is particularly shocking, for the world already produces enough food for all and, with the available knowledge and technology, can feed twice the current global population. Today, hunger results no longer from food shortages, but primarily from access barriers—many poor people simply cannot afford to buy the food they need. Alongside continuing, albeit falling undernourishment, the world also faces another nutrition challenge: the dramatic increase in obesity that now affects half a billion adults.

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 to achieve food and nutrition security in the twenty-first century.

From whichever angle one looks at it, we need to end hunger and malnutrition. Hunger robs millions of people the opportunity to pursue a decent life, and malnutrition in all its forms imposes high costs on human and economic development—up to five percent of the global economic product in lost productivity, health costs, and more.

Nutrition is a public issue of global impact and, as such, it requires public action at all levels to be effectively dealt with. For this purpose, the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), co-organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Health Organization (WHO), was held in Rome from the 19th to the 21st of November 2014.

Speaking at ICN2, Pope Francis summed up the importance of joint efforts in tackling today’s challenges of ending hunger and malnutrition. “When there is a lack of solidarity in a country, the effects are felt throughout the world,” said the Pope.

ICN2 was a landmark event resulting in unprecedented global attention and levels of commitment for the global fight against hunger and malnutrition, with 165 countries and the European Union participating and unanimously adopting the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and its Framework for Action.

The Rome Declaration and the Framework for Action are crucial milestones that commit governments to eradicate hunger and prevent all forms of malnutrition worldwide. Together, the ICN2 outcome documents recognize that poverty, underdevelopment, and low socio-economic status are major contributors to malnutrition and provide a framework to transform a common vision on nutrition into concrete action and results.

Specific actions include:

  • Adopting more ambitious national nutrition targets and prioritizing key indicators for measuring progress in nutrition
  • Encouraging greater policy coherence, alignment, coordination and cooperation among food, agriculture, health, and other sectors to improve nutrition
  • Strengthening sustainable food systems that help deliver healthy diets through actions that include supporting family farming and strengthening their links with local consumption including school meals, and promoting crop diversification
  • Focusing on the “first 1,000 days,” but also giving attention to adolescent girls and to vulnerable families and communities
  • Improving hygiene, sanitation, and access to safe drinking water and health systems
  • Ensuring food safety and the implementation of food quality standards

The challenge now is to implement the ICN2 decisions. Governments are primarily responsible for leading the way in ensuring the food security and nutrition of their citizens, but this effort needs the participation of society as a whole. Globally, we need to improve arrangements to better support national action for food security and nutrition. This includes enhancing coordination within the United Nations System by strengthening our existing structures and strengthening food security and nutrition governance mechanisms, ensuring that they are truly multi-stakeholder dialogues. The Committee on World Food Security emerges as a natural forum for this dialogue to happen.

ICN2 and its commitments do not exist in a vacuum; they are in line with and support other global and regional initiatives for addressing malnutrition. At the global level, the UN Secretary-General’s Zero Hunger Challenge seeks to completely eliminate hunger and malnutrition.

At the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2013, heads of state and government affirmed their commitment to end hunger by 2025, taking to the leaders’ level the ambitious goal set out by the Hunger-Free Latin America and Caribbean Initiative. They are on the right track; the region as a whole and 16 individual countries have already achieved the hunger target of the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG), halving the proportion of their undernourished population.

At the African Union Malabo Summit of 2014, heads of state and government committed to ending hunger in Africa by 2025, supporting the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Plan (CAADP) framework and promoting an integrated approach to food security and nutrition. Twenty‑two African countries have already reached or are on track to meet the MDG hunger target. This commitment is reinforced by the willingness of the region’s higher-income countries to support the efforts of lower-income countries through South-South Cooperation initiatives that include the Africa Solidarity Trust Fund for Food Security.

The momentum for combatting hunger and malnutrition is gathering pace. We need to continue to make one final push to meet the MDG-1 goals and ensure that food security and nutrition remain at the core of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Ending hunger, malnutrition, and extreme poverty are the foundations for sustainable development.