Transformation of food systems needed for better nutrition

FAO/WHO host expert meeting on improving nutrition, setting the stage for major 2014 conference

13 November 2013, Rome - Severe nutrition problems afflict more than half the world's population and food systems will need to undergo significant changes to improve people's diets and lives, speakers told country representatives and experts as they opened a meeting organized by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The 13-15 November event is a preparatory technical meeting designed to lay the groundwork for the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), scheduled to take place in 2014, from 19 to 21 November. The aim is to boost coordination of international efforts to tackle the agricultural, economic, health, food system and other factors that negatively influence what and how people eat, especially in developing countries.

"It is clear that the ways in which food is managed today are failing to result in sufficient improvements in nutrition. The most shocking fact is that over 840 million people still suffer from hunger today, despite the fact that the world already produces enough food for all, and wastes one-third of it" said José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of FAO.

"But that is only part of the story," he continued. "Today, over half of the world's population is affected by some form of malnutrition, be it hunger, micronutrient deficiencies or excessive consumption."

"The total amount of food produced but not consumed would be enough to feed an additional two billion. The truth of the matter is that, today, consumers are not receiving the right signals from current policies about how to eat healthily. That is what we need to address," Graziano da Silva added.

While 842 million people are chronically hungry, many more die or suffer the ill effects of inadequate nutrition. Around 2 billion people are affected by micronutrient deficiencies. Close to 7 million children die before their fifth birthday every year, 162 million children under five are stunted while at the same time, 500 million people are obese.

Considering the magnitude of malnutrition and its impact in broader sustainable development, the Director-General reiterated the support of FAO and the other two Rome-based food and agriculture agencies - the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) - for inclusion of a stand-alone goal on food security and nutrition in the post-2015 Development Agenda, as recommended by the High Level Consultation on Hunger, Food Security and Nutrition that took place last April in Madrid.

Dr Hans Troedsson, Executive Director of WHO's Director-General's Office, also called for a rethinking of the way in which the food system is managed, saying diet was a key factor in tackling the global burden of disease, and that the multi-faceted challenges of nutrition would need to be addressed on many levels, from infancy to maturity.

"If we, in the past, were mainly challenged by malnutrition in children, we are today facing an epidemic of poor diets and low physical activity, leading to high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and overweight," Troedsson said.

"The nutrition and health threats have actually expanded and worsened and this will not go away by itself. We need to address it urgently now and in the future," Troedsson added. "The health sector and the food sector need to work together."

Setting clear goals

"Aware of the enormous burden that it poses for millions of individuals and the development of their countries - the development of their societies - the EU and the Commission have placed the fight against undernutrition very high on the development agenda," said Roberto Ridolfi, European Union Commission Director for Sustainable Growth and Development.

Ridolfi added that the EU was pushing for "measurable and time-bound targets" to reduce child stunting and other consequences of malnutrition, and that the Preparatory Technical Meeting could play a crucial role in spelling out similar indicators.

Ridolfi lauded the meeting's organizers and other international agencies as "strategic allies, at global and country level, to support advocacy efforts for nutrition."

Around 300 experts and country representatives are gathered for the preparatory meeting, along with participants from other United Nations agencies and intergovernmental organizations, civil society, the private sector, researchers and consumer associations.

ICN2 will be a follow-up to the first such conference, which was held in 1992. Its aim is to take stock of progress made so far in improving nutrition and discuss how international coordination can be strengthened to improve the impact of national policies and programs that influence diets and health. The ICN2 will amplify the Secretary General's call to leaders gathered at the Rio+20 Summit to take up the "Zero Hunger Challenge."

ICN2 is also expected to contribute to the overall direction of the Post-2015 Development Agenda and to the focus of EXPO 2015 in Milan, whose theme will be "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life."

Photo: ©FAO/Paballo Thekiso
Good diets mean better nutrition and better lives.