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Europe and Central Asia not without nutrition woes

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, stunted growth and obesity figure among the region’s problems

Photo: ©FAO/Johan Spanner
A man sells potatoes in the street outside the central market in Yerevan, Armenia.

1 April 2014, Bucharest – Taken as a whole and looking strictly at caloric intake, the 53-country Europe and Central Asia region should see the prevalence of hunger fall to less than 1 percent by 2050. Yet a closer look reveals persistent nutrition problems in some of the countries today.

This is the picture painted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on the eve of its biennial Regional Conference for Europe, set to open tomorrow in Bucharest, Romania.

FAO’s latest paper on the state of food and agriculture in Europe and Central Asia concludes that “caloric intake as a measure of undernourishment is currently not the major problem,” though there are exceptions in a handful of countries.

Across the region, only two countries have yet to reach the two major international hunger reduction targets – the first 2001 Millennium Development Goal, and the 1996 World Food Summit goal. Both goals were aimed at cutting under-nutrition in half by 2015 – as a proportion of total population, and in absolute numbers. In three countries, the prevalence of undernourishment today is still above 5 percent.

Sub-optimal diets, stunted children

For many countries included in the review, a more significant problem is lack of adequate micronutrient intake and the “sub-optimal” quality of diets. On this score, these countries often rank lower than other regions of the world.

The average percentage of stunted children under five in the Caucasus and Central Asia group of countries is more than three times higher than in the European Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, where the figure is 6 percent.

Among countries in the Southeastern Europe group, a comparatively high rate of childhood stunting is found in two countries.

Diets in some countries are characterized as monotonous. In some countries, the poorest people obtain 73 percent of their daily caloric intake from cereals, and only 10 percent from dairy or meat products. Those in the highest-income group, in contrast, have more balanced diets with only 48 percent of calories coming from cereals and 29 percent from animal products.

Fruit and vegetable production in Caucasus and Central Asia is on the rise, the paper notes, a trend that offers cause for hope that dietary diversity and quality will improve.

Obesity exceeds global average

Increasing numbers of overweight people were found in the countries reviewed. Almost 48 percent of people in the Caucasus and Central Asia countries, and more than 50 percent in both the European CIS and Southeastern European countries, are overweight or obese by World Health Organization standards.

Overweight increases the risk of diet-related diseases and puts pressure on healthcare facilities, the paper cautions, particularly in poorer countries with fewer financial resources.

The high – and volatile – cost of food

Focusing on the most food-insecure group of countries – in Caucasus and Central Asia – FAO notes that despite impressive increases in agricultural production in recent years, all countries except Uzbekistan continue to be net importers of agricultural products. High reliance on imports makes these countries more vulnerable to fluctuations in international prices, or to the level of their export earnings.

At consumer level, an average of 30 percent of household budgets in these countries is spent on food – compared to 10 percent in Germany, or 13 percent in Czech Republic. The poorest families tend to spend a much higher percentage of their incomes on food – in some cases as high as 70 percent.

Where to go from here?

Prospects for human health and development across the 18 countries covered in the paper will depend largely on the policy choices of national governments. The central recommendation is clear: “The focus of governments needs to be on developing and implementing a comprehensive approach to the revival and development of the agricultural and rural sector.”

Some key ingredients for national recipes to improve food security and nutrition are suggested:

  • A policy focus on smallholder producers in order to reduce rural poverty, increase output and improve agricultural competitiveness
  • Shifting away from extensive production and reliance on one or two commodities
  • Overall economic growth
  • Avoiding consumer subsidies and price controls
  • Income redistribution and social safety net programs that target vulnerable populations
  • Trade and international cooperation
  • A strong science and technology system that stimulates agricultural innovation

The State of Food and Agriculture in the Region, Including Future Prospects and Emerging Issues was prepared to inform the deliberations of member countries at FAO’s 29th Regional Conference for Europe. The Agenda item by the same name is scheduled for the morning of Wednesday, 2 April. A total of 44 country delegations have registered to attend.