Progress on food security and nutrition stagnates in Europe and Central Asia

More than 14 million adults suffer severe food insecurity while overweight and obesity are on the rise

11 December 2018, Budapest/Rome  - More than 14 million adults, and some 4.7 million children in Europe and Central Asia suffer from severe food insecurity - as defined by the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) - the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said in a report released today.

The Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition: Europe and Central Asia 2018 analyzes a wealth of country data on dietary energy supply, undernourishment and nutrition indicators, such as stunting and wasting, anaemia, overweight and obesity, and the effects of the shifts in people's diets.

FAO estimates that some 2.1 percent of the region's total population of nearly one billion was exposed to severe food insecurity in 2015-2017 based on FIES data.

"While the prevalence of severe food insecurity in Europe and Central Asia at around 2 percent is far lower than the world average of 9.2 percent, it is still cause for concern especially in  those countries with persisting hunger and malnutrition," said FAO senior policy officer Ariella Glinni, the report's principal author.

"We want to make sure no one is left behind  and that there is access to nutritious food for all," Glinni added. "To achieve this we also need to better understand the situation of different population groups, address the key underlying issues such as poverty, economic and social inequalities, conflicts and other factors".  

In the last decades, the region as a whole has achieved significant progress in fighting food insecurity, however, since 2014 the decreasing trend on the prevalence of undernourishment has been stagnating at 6 percent, and in 2016 and 2017 the number of undernourished people in Central Asia has been slowly growing in absolute terms.

Initial findings across the region show inequality between women and men in the prevalence of severe food insecurity. In the Caucasus, Central Asia, and European Commonwealth of Independent States countries, adult women were found with a higher rate of severe food insecurity than men.

"This signals more fundamental gender inequalities in societies, reflected in access to food as well as food utilization," Glinni said. "To ensure that all people, regardless of gender, have adequate food and nutrition, we need to promote coherent measures that can be taken at all levels and in different policy areas."

Triple burden of malnutrition and rising levels of obesity

The report assesses countries' progress toward the Sustainable Development Goal 2 targets for achieving Zero Hunger and improved nutrition by 2030. It also reviews policy measures and solutions that countries apply or could apply to address all four dimensions of food security - availability, access, utilization and stability - and nutrition.

Another key finding is that malnutrition in one or more of its three main forms - undernutrition, overweight and obesity, and micronutrient deficiencies - is present to varying degrees in all countries of the region. Often all three forms coexist, creating what is called the "triple burden of malnutrition."

Millions still suffer from micronutrient deficiencies - in particular anaemia, which occurs at significant levels in many countries, including in high-income countries. Anaemia in women of child-bearing age is on the rise, constituting an important public health problem.

The growing levels of overweight and obesity in the region are cause for serious concern. A recent World Health Organization analysis showed a continuous increase in overweight among children and in the prevalence of obesity among adults across the Europe Central Asia region during 2000-2016 period. Some 200 million people, corresponding to one quarter of adults are now obese, which constitutes a major concern for their future health and well-being and related public health costs.

Many countries have moved from dealing predominantly with undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, to coping also with an increase in overnutrition and non-communicable diseases associated with a transition in diets with increased intake of fat, sugar, meat, dairy, and processed foods, often accompanied by a more sedentary lifestyle.

Significant differences in nutrition levels were also observed between urban and rural, remote areas and the report points to underlying economic and social inequality factors.

The role of migration, gender and youth

The report also reviews linkages between migration, gender, youth and rural development and food security and highlights how the Europe and Central Asia region ranks second in the world for receiving migrants: 78 million international migrants of the total 258 million worldwide in 2017.

Migration - whether within a country or across borders - can become a source of development opportunity. In recent years, remittances sent home by migrant workers have lifted millions of families out of poverty and food insecurity. Remittance flows within the region in 2017 were estimated at US$ 44 billion.

More women and young people are migranting - trends driven mainly by unemployment in many countries of the region. Women constitute 52 percent of international migrants in Europe and Central Asia, with important implications for social and family dynamics and for the vulnerability of children, the elderly, and disabled groups.

The report draws on country experiences to highlight measures aimed at mitigating negative consequences of migration on food security, and harnessing its development potential. These include support measures for migrants returning to their country of origin, and the potential of rural development to offer alternative livelihood options to involuntary migration - areas that deserve greater attention and investment.

Photo: ©FAO/Robert Atanasovski
At a food market in Skopje, the capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia