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FAO chief warns of the ‘globalization of obesity’, urges G20 to ensure healthy diets through regulation

Graziano da Silva calls on G20 Agriculture Ministers to promote food systems that guarantee healthy and nutritious food for all

11 May 2019, Niigata/Rome – To address the interconnected problems of hunger, obesity, and climate change, the international community needs to introduce regulations and standards that transform food systems so that they provide, in sustainable ways, healthy and nutritious food for everyone, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva today.

He made the appeal during a meeting by Ministers of Agriculture of the G20 in Niigata, Japan, to discuss investment priorities for sustainable agricultural development.

Hunger is the worst type of malnutrition and must be tackled, but we have to bear in mind that other forms of malnutrition such as obesity are also causing increasing and severe damages to humanity, he said.

This, he added, will only be possible through strong private-public partnerships.

The main reason for the increase in the prevalence of obesity and overweight, the FAO Director-General noted, is the inability of food systems to deliver healthy diets.

“Current food systems are failing to provide people with healthy food and the nutrients that are necessary for a healthy life. They are not oriented to produce healthy food, only food,” he said. “As a result people are eating badly more and more.”

As we discuss how agriculture can contribute for sustainable development, we have to bear in mind that the food challenges facing humanity nowadays also include improving the quality of food, Graziano da Silva underscored.

Nowadays, more than two billion people are overweight. A third of these (more than 670 million) are obese, a condition strongly associated with higher risks of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and some forms of cancer.
Projections suggest that the number of obese people in the world will very soon overtake the number of people suffering from hunger, which accounted for 821 million in 2017. This has already happened in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“While hunger is mainly circumscribed to those areas affected by conflicts or the impacts of climate change, obesity is everywhere: we are witnessing its globalization,” Graziano da Silva said.
Eight of the 20 countries with the fastest rising rates of adult obesity are in Africa, and of the 38 million overweight children under five, almost half are in Asia.

Globally, the problem carries an exorbitant cost, estimated at $2 trillion a year (equivalent to the impact of smoking or the impact of armed conflicts) in healthcare and lost productivity.

Private-public partnerships essential

Promoting good nutrition and healthy diets is not an individual task but a public responsibility, which is not limited to governments, he said: “Only with the engagement of private sector and civil society this serious issue can be solved. Regulating sustainable food systems for healthy diets also needs the support of the food industry”.

Graziano da Silva cited Chile’s example, where there are reports that link the reduction of obesity among children to the development of a front-of-pack food label system.

Artificial Intelligence to improve family farmers' resilience and productivity

FAO’s chief stressed that rapid advances in agricultural innovation that address climate change and support family farmers are essential if the Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved by 2030. 

“Innovating for family farmers and addressing the factors that impede transitions to diversified agroecological systems must become a higher priority. Technology alone cannot provide answers to global challenges nor empower family farmers, but it can increase options and make it easier to deploy effective solutions,” he said. “It is essential to ensure that technology serves the poor, aims toward inclusive development and is used to enable people to deal with risks and vulnerabilities”.

He referred to artificial intelligence, genome editing and distributed ledger technologies as particularly important to transforming the technical world of food and agriculture “for better or worse”.

He gave the example of “Nuru”, an innovative talking smartphone application developed by FAO in cooperation with the Pennsylvania State University to tackle the rapid spread of the Fall Armyworm. This destructive pest first appeared in West Africa in 2016, and then rapidly spread across all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, infecting millions of hectares of maize, and threatening the food security of more than 300 million people.

“Nuru is based on machine learning and artificial intelligence. It runs inside a standard Android phone and can work also offline,” he said. “With Nuru, farmers can hold the phone next to an infested plant, and the application can immediately confirm if Fall Armyworm has caused the damage. They can take immediate steps to destroy it and stop its spread”

Photo: ©FAO
Family photo of the G20 Agriculture Ministers meeting in Niigata, Japan.