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Our Food Systems Need Transformation

Zoltán Kálmán is Permanent Representative of Hungary to the Rome-based UN agencies (FAO, IFAD, WFP). He was President of the WFP Executive Board in 2018.

ROME, Aug 28 2019 (IPS) - The right to food is a universal human right. Yet, over 820 million people are going hungry, according the latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI 2019). In addition, 2 billion people in the world are food insecure with great risk of malnutrition and poor health” 1.

Another report 2 describes the situation even more worrying: “At the global level, one person in three is malnourished today and one in two could be malnourished by 2030 in a business-as-usual scenario. While hunger remains a critical concern, malnutrition in all its forms (undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity) now affects all countries, whether low-, middle- or high-income. Those different forms of malnutrition can co-exist within the same country or community, and sometimes within the same household or individual.”

Against this backdrop, the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) 3, which is, at the global level, the foremost inclusive and evidence-based international and intergovernmental platform for food security and nutrition (FSN), requested a High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) 4 to prepare a report on nutrition and food systems. The comprehensive HLPE report 5 is the basis for a series of inclusive, multi-stakeholder discussions at global and regional levels, including e-consultations, to provide inputs for shaping the Voluntary Guidelines (VGs) on Food Systems and Nutrition.

The zero draft 6 of the VGs provides a comprehensive overview on the situation of food security and nutrition. However, among the causes of malnutrition, appropriate reference to the root causes is still missing: poverty and inequalities. Due to their extreme poverty, many people do not have access to enough nutritious food, although it should not be a privilege, it is a basic human right. This confirms the need for transformation of our current food systems and make them more sustainable.

One basic problem is the misconception of low food price policy. The impacts of low food prices on the consumers’ behaviour are significant, including their buying preferences. The situation of “low food prices” appears to be the result of competition among retailers and as such, they seem to be positive, favouring the poor people. In reality, all people, including the poor, suffer the consequences of low food prices, which regularly mean low quality of food. Low quality, ultra-processed food (frequently with high fat, sugar and salt content, the so-called junk food) have serious consequences on the nutrition status of the poor populations, leading to obesity, overweight and other non-communicable diseases. Food prices generally do not reflect the real costs of production, ignore the positive and negative impacts (externalities) of food systems on the environment and on human health.

For the right decisions to transform our current food systems, true cost accounting is essential, giving due consideration to all environmental and human health externalities. This could help shape the VGs, recommending appropriate measures, policy incentives in support of sustainable solutions. There are ample scientific evidences related to the true costs of food and there are several studies 7 available on this topic.

In addition, artificially distorted, low food prices have a strong impact on the food waste as well. Cheap food conveys the message that it does not represent a real value and consumers will throw away food more easily. Higher food prices (reflecting the true costs of food) would discourage consumers to buy more than they effectively need. Realistic prices of food do not imply generally high food prices. Only the prices of those (ultraprocessed, junk) food would go up which do not internalize the environmental and public health externalities. Studies show that as a result of true cost accounting, locally produced, fresh, healthy, unprocessed (whole) food would become more competitive, for the benefit of those who produce them, and in particular, the consumers and the whole society. The solution for the poor is not cheap food, but decent work and wages, essential to combat extreme poverty. In addition, the costs of decent wages are much lower than the benefits of saving great amounts of public health care expenditure.

For the transformation of our food systems, sustainability should be the driving principle, paying due attention to the (so far ignored) environmental and social dimensions. Obviously, the economic dimension should also be considered, keeping in mind, however, that economic sustainability is nothing else but the result of the financial policy incentives or subsidies, promoting one or another type of food systems. In this regard, national legislators have enormous responsibility in providing the appropriate policy incentives to those food systems, which are sustainable. Sustainability addresses climate change adaptation and mitigation concerns as well, and goes well beyond, it provides adequate responses to a number of other environmental challenges (biodiversity loss, soil degradation) and to social issues as well, like rural employment.

The VGs are expected to provide assistance for the transformation of food systems and to make them more sustainable, in order to eliminate hunger and all forms of malnutrition and to supply fresh, diverse, nutritious food for a healthy diet for all.

2 HLPE. 2017. Nutrition and food systems. A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and
Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome.
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