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Building momentum for transforming food systems for healthy diets and improved nutrition

By Günter Hemrich, Deputy Director ad interim, Nutrition and Food Systems Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Introduction

The “International Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Improved Nutrition”, organized by FAO and WHO from 1-2 December 2016 in Rome, Italy, concluded with a call by FAO Director-General and Global Panel member José Graziano da Silva for “transformational changes in food systems and food environments to tackle all forms of malnutrition and promote healthy diets”.

The Symposium was organized to enable countries to step up food systems actions they committed to at the Second International Conference of Nutrition (ICN2) in 2014 in order to promote healthy diets and help them work towards the nutrition-related targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The Decade of Action on Nutrition 2016-2025, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in April 2016, provides additional impetus and an enabling political environment for turning these commitments into actions.

Over two days, more than 600 representatives from government, civil society, the private sector, and academia with expertise in agriculture, food systems and value chains, nutrition and health shared country experiences, lessons and fresh ideas on how to reshape  food systems to deliver on healthy diets.  The deliberations focused on three sub-themes, generating a comprehensive picture of food systems and actionable entry points:

  1. Supply side policies and measures for increasing access to healthy diets. This involved an exchange of views and country examples on improving nutrition by sustainable agriculture diversification, improving post-harvest management and reducing food loss and waste and, food processing for improved nutrition value, product reformulation, bio fortification, food safety and facilitating market access, especially for small holder farmers.
  2. Demand side policies and measures for increasing access and empowering consumers to choose healthy diets. Successful examples of nutrition-sensitive social protection, nutrition education and awareness raising, regulations on food labelling and advertisement, and strategies to empower women as key-food system drivers were discussed.
  3. Measures to strengthen accountability, resilience, and equity within the food system included concrete examples of linking data to policy and programme design, monitoring and evaluation, to exchange views on ways to shape comprehensive multi-sector and multi-stakeholders policies effectively. Country examples of maintaining functioning food systems in crisis situations, including areas affected by climate change were also provided.

Presentations are available here.

A new paradigm for addressing the global malnutrition situation

The need for a paradigm shift to turn the focus of food systems from merely feeding people to actually nourishing people was underscored in the keynote address delivered by Patrick Webb, Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, Policy and Evidence Adviser to the Global Panel and Symposium Vice-Chair. Calling for “a radical transformation of our food systems,” Webb pointed to the need for “a complete change in the way we generate food, distribute food and make food available to all people to achieve healthy, sustainable diets and improve nutrition.”

This shift, he argued, is urgent, in light of an emerging global nutrition crisis, which threatens to drive the number of people in the world affected by malnutrition from one-third at present to possibly half of the population by 2035. Current reductions in undernourishment and micronutrient deficiencies are too slow while there is a parallel sharp rise in overweight and obesity, he noted.  Over two billion people in the world suffer from health-affecting micronutrient deficiencies and an estimated 156 million children under 5 years of age are stunted. At the same time, 1.9 billion people are now overweight – 600 million of them classified as obese.

The rationale for shifting world attention to responding to the mounting impacts of malnutrition on public health and economic development has a strong economic underpinning, estimated to cost around $3.5 trillion per year. The following figures reveal the various dimensions and scale of the costs of malnutrition:

  •  The cost to the global economy caused by malnutrition, as a result of lost productivity and direct health care costs, could account for as much as 5 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), equivalent to US$3.5 trillion per year or US$500 per person (SOFA 2013)The economic costs of undernutrition, in terms of lost national productivity and economic growth, are significant—ranging from 2 to 3% of GDP in some countries and up to 11% of GDP in Africa and Asia each year (see here).  The Global Panel study on the economics of reducing malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa estimates that for seven African countries participating in the exercise, undernutrition causes a median loss of 7.7% to their GDP.
  • Obesity’s global economic impact amounts to roughly $2 trillion annually or 2.8 percent of global GDP- equivalent to the global economic impact of smoking or of armed violence, war, and terrorism (McKinsey Global Institute, Nov 2014).

As FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva underscored, economic costs aside, the human, social and environmental costs of malnutrition are “overwhelming”. In fact, malnutrition compromises the quality of life of many people for their entire lifetime.

Entry points for transforming food systems for better nutrition

While recognizing that staple foods are essential, the symposium contributions highlighted how public support policies and investments are often biased towards staple food production and illustrated how this has contributed to a lack of diversity in the food supply. Even as demand is increasing for diversified diets, the supply response has been relatively slow, partly due to risk and incentive structures for producers.

As a result, non-staple foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and pulses and animal source foods are out of reach for many, especially for the poor and the most vulnerable. Reorienting support policies, incentives, research and technologies could make such nutrient-rich non-staple foods more accessible. Production methods that are environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable are essential for this.

Improving the supply of food for healthy diets does not stop at production. From production to retail there are numerous opportunities along the value chain to protect and enhance the nutritional value and safety of food. Given that nutrient-dense foods tend to be more perishable, improving post-harvest handling and reducing food loss and waste are key areas for increasing the availability of nutritious foods. As processed foods become a significant part of diets, there is a need for policies, incentives and legislation to ensure that these meet the requirements of a healthy diet.

The symposium deliberations also stressed the critical role of consumers in making informed decisions about dietary choices. Food-based dietary guidelines, food labelling, school food and nutrition programmes can all help in building awareness. In this regard, it is important that demand side measures, and in particular food-based dietary guidelines, are closely linked to policies across the food system.        

Transforming food systems requires active engagement of all actors, including farmers, governments, food processers, and marketing and retail actors and consumers. Supply as well as demand side policies and measures need to go hand in hand and should be aligned for maximum impact on supporting healthy diets and improved nutrition. Incentives for improving the supply of nutrient-rich foods and those for increasing demand for healthy diets were highlighted as two sides of the same coin during the symposium.

The thinking behind what constitutes a healthy diet is evolving rapidly. Therefore, there is a continued need to expand the evidence on the linkages between food systems and diets. As called for in the Global Panel’s new report, better data and information are key for sound policies, including in areas such as food composition, diet quality and food consumption.  

In conclusion, there was clear convergence among participants on the need to reshape food systems to deliver on healthy diets. The intense deliberations over the two-day symposium conveyed the urgency and momentum by stakeholders to address all forms of malnutrition through food systems actions. Other challenges along the way, such as climate change, urbanization, rapid population growth must be recognized and tackled in the bid to transform the food system at the same time. What is now needed is to turn extant systems thinking into systems-based action.

Read the Global Panel's Nature comment piece 

Image: FAO