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Opinion: Better Nutrition for Better Lives

Jomo Kwame Sundaram is the Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, and received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

ROME, Nov 26 2015 (IPS) - Food systems are increasingly challenged to ensure food security and balanced diets for all, around the world. Almost 800 million people are chronically hungry, while over two billion people suffer from “hidden hunger,” with one or more micronutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile, over two billion people are overweight, with a third of them clinically obese, and hence more vulnerable to non-communicable diseases.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Credit: FAO

Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Credit: FAO

Overcoming hunger and malnutrition in the 21st century does not simply involve increasing food availability, but also improving access, especially for the hungry. Creating healthy, affordable and sustainable food systems for all is the most effective way to achieve this.

Since 1945, food production has tripled as average food availability per person has risen by 40 per cent. But despite abundant food supplies, almost 800 million still go hungry every day, of whom most live in developing countries. Many more go hungry seasonally or intermittently. Hunger affects their ability to work and to learn. Clearly, the problem is not just one of food availability, but also of access.

The health of over two billion people is compromised because their diets lack essential micronutrients, which prevents them reaching their full human potential. “Hidden hunger,” or micronutrient deficiencies, undermine the physical and cognitive development of their children, exposing them to illness and premature death.

Ironically, in many parts of the world, hunger co-exists with rising levels of obesity. Over two billion people are overweight, with a third of them deemed obese. This, in turn, exposes them to greater risk of diabetes, heart problems and other diet-related non-communicable diseases.

Food system: problem and solution

Food systems must become more responsive to people’s needs, including food insecure, socially excluded and economically marginalized households. Mothers, young children, the aged and the disabled are especially vulnerable. Adequate nutrition during the “first thousand days,” from conception to the child’s second birthday, is especially critical.

Our challenge then is not simply to produce and supply more food, but to ensure that better food is consumed by all, especially those most in need. And this has to be sustainable in terms of the environment and natural resources to ensure the capacity of future generations to feed themselves.

Increasingly intensive industrial farming systems and massive food wastage are often simply unsustainable. Food production has often put great stress on natural resources – exhausting fresh water supplies, encroaching on forests, degrading soils, depleting wild fish stocks and reducing biodiversity.

We need to recognize and deal with these challenges urgently. Fortunately, we also have the means to transform food production systems to make them more sustainable and healthy by empowering local communities.

Healthy food systems for healthier people

Strong political commitment is required to prioritize nutrition and to improve food systems. Food system policies, programmes and interventions should always strive to improve diets, nutrition and people’s access to and consumption of foods adequate in quantity and quality – in terms of diversity, nutrient content and safety.

Food production research and development should focus on ensuring more diverse, balanced and healthy diets, including more nutrient-rich foods, as well as ecological and resource sustainability. Natural resources must be used more efficiently, with less adverse impacts, by getting more and better food from water, land, fertilizer and labour.

Nutrient dense foods, such as milk, eggs and meat, are improving diets for many, while livestock continues to provide livelihoods for millions. Yet, livestock production and consumption need to be more sustainable, with far less adverse effects on climate change, disease transmission and overall health.

Such food system reforms need to be accompanied by needed complementary interventions, including public health, education, employment and income generation, as well as social protection to enhance resilience. Governments, consumers, producers, distributors, researchers and others need to be more involved in the food system.

Smart investment

Better nutrition also makes economic sense. About five per cent of global economic welfare is lost due to malnutrition in all its forms owing to foregone output and additional costs incurred. Expenditure to address malnutrition offers very high private and social returns. Yet, only about one per cent of the total aid budget is allocated for this purpose.

The follow-up to the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in Rome late last year provides a historic opportunity for political decisions and concerted interventions to enhance nutrition for all through better policies and international solidarity. Currently, less than one per cent of foreign aid goes to nutrition. It is hard to justify not making the desperately needed investments in better nutrition for better lives.


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