From the podium

From the podium

Ms Gro Harlem Brundtland (Director-General, World Health Organization - WHO)

Food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition dominate the health of the world's poorest nations.

Alleviation of hunger and malnutrition is a fundamental pre-requisite for poverty reduction and sustainable development.

More than 570 million of the world's women suffer from anaemia. Their babies are small, they are weakened and tired, and their lives are at risk.

Some 60 percent of the 11 million childhood deaths in developing countries each year are associated with malnutrition: 160 million children under five are stunted due to protein energy malnutrition; 740 million people suffer from iodine deficiency disorders; 250 million children under five suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

The results are more than the deaths: hundreds of millions of children have lower defences against infectious diseases; children who do not develop to their physical and mental potential. As a result, they lose out at school, in the work place and, ultimately, in life itself.

Through the Millennium Development goals, we have committed ourselves to cut abject poverty by half by 2015.

We will only achieve this if we can drastically reduce malnutrition.

This will involve serious agricultural reforms and changes in trade.

It will involve new policies and distribution systems that will make this food available to the poorest.

It will involve tackling the wasting diseases, including HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria.

It will involve fortification of basic food products at a price that is affordable for the poorest.

It will involve more scientific research and better stewardship and governance by national leaders.

The dual scourge of hunger and malnutrition will be truly vanquished not only when granaries are full, but also when people's basic health needs are met and women are given their rightful role in societies. The other major causes of malnutrition, not only food shortage, must feature prominently in the way we move ahead.

Malnutrition is also a matter of food safety. Contaminated food is a major cause of epidemic diarrhoea, substantially contributing to malnutrition and killing about 2.2 million people each year, most of them children.

Investing in food safety carries big returns. It reduces the expenses of food-borne disease. It contributes to poverty alleviation through increasing the quality and length of life, while augmenting people's productivity, and improves global health and global trade.

We should also focus on the other side of the malnutrition coin: the negative health effects connected with an unbalanced diet, too high an intake of calories and not enough exercise. Obesity, diabetes and heart diseases are no longer reserved for the affluent and over-privileged. The rapidly growing epidemic of non-communicable diseases, already responsible for some 60 percent of world deaths, is clearly related to increased consumption of industrially-processed fatty, salty and sugary foods.

In the slums of today's mega-cities, we are seeing non-communicable diseases caused by unhealthy diets and lifestyle, side-by-side with undernutrition. This double burden of disease is rapidly becoming a serious brake on the development efforts of many countries. But the rapidly changing global dietary patterns have wider consequences. Increasing meat consumption is also affecting our environment and the nature of agricultural production.

Economic development and globalization need not be associated with increasing inequity, hunger and chronic disease. On the contrary, we can harness the forces of globalization to reduce inequity, to reduce hunger and to improve health in a more just and inclusive global society.

But for that we need new thinking and new action. We need a longer-term perspective that places the health of people and the health of our planet at the centre. We have the knowledge. We know how to enable the poor to get the food they need. We know how to avoid micronutrient deficiencies. We know how to encourage breast-feeding of infants. We know how to ensure safe food from farm to plate. We know what constitutes healthy diets.

We have the tools to make changes. From this Summit, I also hear that we have the will. Let us now work for a world where all can eat and live healthy lives in dignity.

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