Malnutrition in the crosshairs

One in three people suffers some form of malnutrition – Enormous economic burden – International meeting searches for ways to improve diets and food systems

1 December 2016, Rome - Responding to the mounting impacts of malnutrition on public health and economic development — estimated to cost $3.5 trillion per year — via a shift to healthier diets and food systems will be the subject of a high-level symposium kicking off here today.

The International Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Improved Nutrition (1-2 December) will look at country-level challenges and successes to shed light on effective approaches to reshaping food production, processing, marketing and retail systems to better tackle the problem of malnutrition, which blights the lives of billions of individuals and can trap generations in a vicious cycle of poverty and malnutrition.

Lamenting the fact that one in three people on the planet suffers from some form of malnutrition — either undernutrition or overweight and obesity — FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said that "no country is immune" from the problem whose "human, social, environmental and economic costs are overwhelming" during his opening remarks at the event co-organized by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Graziano da Silva pledged FAO's support to help countries "adopt a food systems approach to address all states of the food chain: from production and processing to marketing and consumption."

"Nutrition must be considered a public issue, a State responsibility," he said, adding that "consumers must be empowered to choose healthy food and diets" through nutrition-sensitive social protection, nutrition education, and effective and accurate labelling and advertising.

Governments should encourage diversification of agriculture, improved post-harvest management, facilitate market access for poor family farmers and guarantee food-safety, he added.

The FAO Director General also announced that King Letsie III of Lesotho is FAO's newest Special Ambassador for Nutrition.

Pledging to take up that role with energy and passion, King Letsie welcomed the fact that nutrition is now firmly on the global agenda. Noting that in Africa just a few years ago, "nutrition was not a priority for discussion, let alone investment," the King said now "the tide has turned for the better."

He encouraged symposium participants to keep up the momentum, adding: "Let us all remember the positive correlation between nutrition and the socio-economic development of nations. It is well fed and well-nourished individuals that can drive the economic development agendas of their countries."

Lesotho's leader has already been playing an active role promoting better diets as the African Union's "Champion for Nutrition." He now joins Queen Letizia of Spain, also in attendance as an FAO Special Ambassador for Nutrition.

Francesco Branca, WHO Director of Nutrition for Health and Development, delivered remarks on behalf of the Organization's Director-General, Margaret Chan. "Nutrition is a challenge for all countries. Whether it is stunting, wasting, anaemia or obesity, no country is exempt. With the sustainable development goals we are committed to end all forms of malnutrition by the year 2030," she said in her message.

"With the great leadership of many Member States, the energy of civil society, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector we can collectively achieve in a short time dramatic change in food systems and the food environment, for the improvement of everybody's nutrition," Chan added.

Italian Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin, who chaired the symposium, observed in her remarks that "food isnot just our most basic and fundamental source of energy, but can heal us: good nutrition can be our number one weapon against chronic, noncomunicable diseases.

She called for education programs that teach not only the value of eating well but of food cultures and traditions which support health living, like the Mediterranean diet, and urged innovation and investment aimed at making nutritional gains in agriculture and food systems, as well as the creation of national observatories on nutrition to track progress on identify areas for improvement.

Complex, overlapping nutrition challenges

Today nearly 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger, meaning they regularly are unable to consume the minimum level of food energy needed to maintain an active lifestyle.

But malnutrition is more than caloric hunger; it includes micronutrient deficiencies and overweight and obesity.  Poor diets are linked to a range of health problems and can perpetuate poverty and stymie economic development.

Over two billion people on the planet suffer from health-affecting micronutrient deficiencies, and an estimated 150 million children under 5 years of age are stunted due to poor diets. At the same time, 1.9 billion people are now overweight — 600 million of them are classified as obese.

And the nutrition challenges of today are complex and often overlapping — people in the very same communities can suffer from hunger, micronutrient deficiencies, and obesity alongside one another.

Forward momentum

This past April 2016 the UN declared the start of an "International Decade on Nutrition" to provide an umbrella under which diverse actors can collaborate to follow through on commitments made at the 2014 2nd International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) and meet the nutrition-related targets of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that UN Member nations adopted last year.

Nutrition has been hard-wired into the SDGS: indeed, SDG2 calls not only for the eradication of hunger but also of malnutrition, "in all its forms.'

With an eye to spurring progress towards these goals, the symposium will, over the course of two days, offer policy-makers and parliamentarians, health and nutrition experts from government and the private sector, development professionals, and other stakeholders the opportunity to explore in-depth how food systems can be transformed to provide better nutrition for all  people.

Photo: ©FAO/Sergey Kozmin
A farming family in Kyrgyzstan takes a break from the day's work to share a meal.