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How to Reap the Benefits of Food as Medicine

Sorghum is has nutritional and health benefits. Small scale farmer, Catherine Sibanda examines her sorghum crop in field, in Jambezi District, Zimbabwe, March 2015. Credit: Busani Bafana / IPS

BULAWAYO, Dec 2 2020 (IPS) - COVID-19 has magnified global food insecurity and is driving unhealthy eating and worsening malnutrition, food experts say. They have called for deliberate global investment in food as medicine on the back of growing diet-related illnesses.

Famed Greek physician, Hippocrates, foretold the future of food. He is attributed to have said: ‘Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food’. COVID-19 has pushed the conversation about food as medicine onto the world agenda as more people are paying attention to their health and increasingly what they eat.

“COVID 19 has exposed American population to infectious diseases, and it has started off the conversation around food is medicine and how we need to reset our food system to create higher quality and more nutrient-dense food,” physician and author, Mark Hyman, told a plenary session at the virtual ‘Resetting the Food System from Farm to Fork’ dialogue co-hosted by the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) and Food Tank.

Hyman said a rejigged food system which creates better health for the population was a good strategy for pandemic resistance. He said food as medicine is part of medical care because it works better and faster and cheaper than most drugs and is probably the most effective treatment we have for most chronic illnesses.

“Science is clear that more nutrient density and food quality plays a huge role in human health and the protector foods, foods that protect you against disease and have medicinal properties,” said Hyman. He proposed the eating of more inexpensive, plant-based foods. “We need to rethink farming and introduce more nutrient-dense foods.”

Early this year, the United Nations warned that the pandemic would escalate a global food crisis – the worst in 50 years. The international body said the pandemic would make nutrition beyond the reach of many.

“Our food systems are failing, and the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse,” UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, warned, proposing three action plan to bolster a failing food system.

Guterres said countries should designate food and nutrition services as essential while implementing protections for those who work in the sector, prioritise food supply chains and strengthen social protection for young children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, older people and other at-risk groups. He also advocated the transformation of food systems for a more inclusive and sustainable world.

More than 820 million people in the world do not have enough to eat even though there is plenty of food to feed everyone. Globally, some 144 million children under five years are stunted as a result of malnutrition.

The UN has warned that nearly 690 million people, or 8.9 percent of the world’s population, were undernourished in 2019. This figure could rise to more than 840 million by 2030 if the current trend continues.

Collaboration is key to healthy food and lives

Peggy Liu, the chairperson of the Joint US-China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), said more people are seeking the medicinal benefit of food. It was therefore critical to bring together all actors in the food and health value chain; farmers, doctors, nutritionists and wellness professionals to collaborate.

“Food is the most intimate act that we do with our bodies. Why are we not paying more attention to it and how can we all join together to redraw the narrative of food?” asked Liu who noted that effective policies are good for tackling issues like food waste. She said, for example, China has an Empty Plate campaign, which has reduced food waste which is considered a leading source of emissions.

Filomena Maggino, advisor to the Italian Prime Minister and coordinator of the steering committee ‘Benessere Italia”, underlined the need to change the mentality of policymakers to enact policies that support healthy food and promote multi-sector coordination among food stakeholders.

“We know that eating better is a substantial part of having a longer, healthier life,” Walter Ricciardi, scientific adviser to Italy’s Minister of Health, member of European advisory committee on health research at the World Health Organisation said, adding: “What we have to do now is that is that multinational organisations such the European Union and the World Health Organisation have to work to make this a social responsibility, for instance, providing governments with the best information to decide what are the best strategies for taxation, funding and subsidising.”

“Food is something we cannot do without, and we need to promote good food. What we are eating is harming us,” said Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She argued that people should not just be fed healthily but the world must address deep inequalities that exist on food access.

Time to act
Sandro Demaio, renowned public health expert and founder of Sandro Demaio Foundation, said no country is immune to malnutrition. With the world focused on food and health, the UN Food Systems Summit is an opportunity to accelerate significant gains in food policy.

“Published science alone will never change the world, it is about translating that [science] into content messaging and concepts that people can easily plate and digest,” said Demaio. “We need to hold each other and our leaders accountable, and we achieve that and safeguard not only for future generations but for billions that currently do not have the opportunity to enjoy good nutrition and a healthy life.”


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