FAO and WHO urge strong political commitment to tackle malnutrition at upcoming high-level international conference

Countries called to action at Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in Rome in November

12 June 2014, Rome - As hundreds of millions of people around the world continue to suffer from hunger and malnutrition, governments should make stronger commitments at the upcoming Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) to ensure healthier diets for all, the heads of FAO and WHO said today.

A high-level, global intergovernmental meeting, ICN2 is scheduled to take place in Rome on 19-21 November 2014. It is co-organized by FAO and WHO with other UN and international organizations with the theme: "Better nutrition, better lives".

Since the first international conference on nutrition in 1992, "important advances in the fight against hunger and malnutrition have been made, but this progress has been insufficient and uneven," FAO Director-General, José Graziano da Silva, said.

Over 840 million people are chronically undernourished, with the proportion of undernourished only falling 17 per cent since the early 1990s. Malnutrition is responsible for about half of all child deaths under five years of age, causing over three million deaths every year.

Meanwhile, various forms of malnutrition often overlap and can coexist within the same country and even within the same household. Around 160 million children under five are stunted or chronically malnourished, while over two billion people suffer one or more micronutrient deficiencies. At the same time, another half billion are obese.

"One aim of the conference (ICN2) is to provide the scientific basis for sound nutrition policies that promote food security and food safety while also promoting health," WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in a video message prepared for the press conference.

Chan said that among the important questions participants at ICN2 need to address is: "Why is it that severe undernutrition and obesity can exist side by side in the same country and in the same community?"

The WHO Director-General also noted the need to consider the health and environmental implications of another recent trend: "the rapid rise in the demand for meat and other animal products that coincides with rising income levels".

Nutrition is a public issue

"Nutrition remains an urgent and pressing challenge and addressing nutrition a complex task," Graziano da Silva said. "Nutrition is a public issue and impacts on food security, food safety, and health," he added.

Malnutrition carries an elevated price tag

Graziano da Silva stressed the high social and economic costs of malnutrition that are a burden on society. "Estimates point to a loss of up to 5 percent of global income per year in terms of lost productivity and health expenses. This adds up to roughly 3.5 trillion US dollars, or 500 US dollars per person,  a huge amount of money and a high cost to pay," he said.

Efforts to improve food and nutrition security continue to be hampered by governance issues such as low political commitment, weak institutional arrangements and a lack of appropriate coordination and involvement of stakeholders, FAO and WHO emphasized.

Other key challenges include volatile international food prices, aggravated by increased dependence on world markets and on food imports, low agricultural productivity accentuated by climate change, as well as post-harvest losses and food waste.

Nutrition calls for collective action

Noting that governments are ultimately responsible for the nutritional welfare of their citizens, and are thus called to lead the efforts to improve nutrition, Graziano da Silva said these also required collective action involving parliaments, academia, the private sector and civil society organizations.

"Because of this, non-state actors have a very important role to play in the context of ICN2, not only to build consensus but also to help implement the framework for action the conference is expected to approve,"the FAO Director-General said.

ICN2 will build on the first international conference that took place 22 years ago and other events since, and will in turn feed into the UN's Zero Hunger Challenge, the post-2015 development agenda and EXPO Milan 2015.

ICN2 should approve a political declaration on nutrition and a framework for action to ensure effective implementation of the commitments made at this high level meeting.

Heads of state and government, other dignitaries and leaders have been invited to the high level conference. Pope Francis has already confirmed his participation.

Photo: ©FAO/Christena Dowsett
One aim of the ICN2 conference is to provide the scientific basis for sound nutrition policies that promote food security and food safety while also promoting health.