Right agriculture policies can promote healthy diets

Agriculture and the right farm policies can promote healthy diets but Europeans are in some ways eating worse now than 45 years ago, an international meeting was told here.

© FAO/G. Napolitano

18 May 2006, Rome - FAO economist Josef Schmidhuber told the two-day meeting, grouping representatives from member countries of the Regional Offices for Europe of the World Health Organization and of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization: “The EU diet has become too rich in fats, particularly saturated fats, sugar and cholesterol.”

One positive sign, however, was that in 2002 people in the EU were eating more fruit and vegetables, Schmidhuber said. People in Mediterranean countries generally ate healthier diets than elsewhere in Europe but there were clear signs of deterioration in the Mediterranean diet too, he added.

The WHO/FAO meeting, supported by the Italian Government, is taking place at FAO Headquarters in Rome. Its aim is to facilitate dialogue between the agriculture and public health sectors and to identify policy options such as supporting primary production, fiscal policies and marketing guidelines in order to help improve people’s diets and combat obesity and related diseases.

“It is a sad fact that overweight and obesity affect the poorest parts of society most, and also have long-term consequencesfor one of its most vulnerable groups – children”, said Dr Marc Danzon, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Everyone must have access to healthy food, and government policies must support both availability and access in Europe."

Obesity is one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century. Its prevalence has risen threefold in many European countries since the 1980s, and the numbers of those affected, particularly children, are continuing to increase at an alarming rate. Obesity is already responsible for 2-8% of health care costs and 10-13% of deaths in different parts of the European Region - more than any other region.

Double burden

FAO nutritionist Guy Nantel told the delegates that obesity was not limited to rich, developed countries but was rapidly becoming a problem in developing countries too. This placed them under a “double burden” of undernourishment co-existing with overnutrition and obesity.

Adoption of Western diets and increasingly sedentary lives were sending obesity rates climbing fast in developing countries, with women most affected, Nantel said.

FAO estimates that there were 852 million undernourished people worldwide in 2000-2002 while at the same time WHO said there were 300 million obese adults and 115 million suffering from obesity-related conditions in the developing world.

Nantel cited the example of China where 23% of the adult population were now overweight or obese, and diet-related chronic diseases had become the leading cause of death.

Part of a solution to the problem would be for people to eat more fruit and vegetables, Eric Kueneman, Chief of the FAO service dealing with crop production told the meeting.

“FAO is actively promoting fruit and vegetable production for both health and for income-generation for producers,” he noted. An ongoing joint WHO/FAO initiative on fruit and vegetables represented “an exciting avenue for expanded cooperation in the health, education and agriculture sectors,” he added.