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Diouf: Malnutrition in all its forms is ‘intolerable’

Addresses nutrition conference at Tuskegee University - awarded honorary degree

10 October 2011, Tuskegee, Alabama – Preventing malnutrition is an investment that makes sense not only ethically but also economically, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said here today.

“Malnutrition in all its forms is an intolerable situation that causes immediate suffering and loss of human potential as well as inhibiting economic and social progress,” Diouf said in a keynote address to the Third International Food and Nutrition Conference at Tuskegee University.

The theme for the conference, which runs from 9 to 11 October, is “Sustainable Approaches in Food and Nutrition to Combat Disparities in Childhood Obesity, Chronic Diseases and Food Insecurity.

Devastating toll

FAO estimates that 925 million people, the equivalent of almost 14% of global population, were hungry and undernourished in 2010. Every year, 10 million children die before their fifth birthday; one-third of these deaths are associated with undernutrition. In the developing world, 178 million young children are stunted due to chronic undernutrition and 148 million children are underweight. Deficiencies of vitamins and minerals affect around 2 billion people.

At the same time, Diouf said, 43 million children under five years of age are overweight, and obesity affects around 500 million adults.

“In low- and middle-income countries, the risk of premature death due to non-communicable diseases that are associated with obesity is becoming more prevalent, Diouf said. “All of these problems are preventable.”

Complex environment

The challenge of addressing these issues has grown more complex with the recent food price instability and economic downturn, compounded by the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters, Diouf said.

“When these crises are combined with underinvestment in agriculture and neglect of the sector, there is increased hunger and poverty. Temporary crises can have long lasting effects as poor people sell their assets and become destitute and spend less on education and health.”

Comprehensive response needed

FAO’s twin-track approach aims to address these complex challenges by meeting pressing relief needs while simultaneously addressing the root causes of hunger and strengthening poor households’ resilience to future shocks, Diouf said.

As an example, the Director-General highlighted FAO’s activities in the Horn of Africa, where more than 12 million people are in urgent need of life- and livelihood-saving assistance.  FAO is active on a number of fronts: increasing access to water resources through rehabilitating and constructing water points; providing agricultural inputs, such as drought-tolerant seeds, animal feed, fodder and water for livestock; using cash transfers to mitigate the rising prices of staple foods and to protect against the distress sales of productive assets, and providing immediate relief through cash-for-work activities.

Other activities include plant and animal pest and disease surveillance and control, improving community water management practices and training farmers on enhanced dry land crop and livestock production systems.

Long-term investment

As the world responds to sudden crises today, long-term investments in agriculture security are required to ensure that food production expands to meet the needs of a world population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, Diouf said.

“If agriculture is to be developed sustainably and if we are to feed the world adequately, we will need financial resources and investment that can meet the scale of the challenge.”

The Director-General called attention to the decline in agriculture’s share in official development assistance, which dropped from 19 percent in 1980 to 3 percent in 2003, and now stands at 5 percent. He also called on developing countries themselves to increase their public spending on agriculture to at least 10 percent.

Helping the ‘man farthest down’

After his address, Dr. Diouf was awarded an honorary doctoral degree by Tuskegee President Dr. Gilbert Rochon.

In accepting the honour, Dr. Diouf quoted the American scientist and Tuskegee educator George Washington Carver, who said: “The primary idea in all of my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man's empty dinner pail. My idea is to help the 'man farthest down'.”

“We need to take coordinated action to fill the “empty pails” of the most food insecure today, while helping farmers sustainably boost production to ensure food security and economic development for the long term,” Diouf said.