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Globally, Increasingly Poor Diets Now Pose a Greater Risk to Health than Unsafe Sex, Alcohol, Drug and Tobacco Use Combined

New report outlines vision for a food system that reduces malnutrition and promotes health 

(23 September 2016) Rome, Italy – A new report by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition finds that the burden of malnutrition is equivalent to that of experiencing a global financial crisis every year. An estimated 3 billion people across 193 countries have low-quality diets which contribute to poor nutrition and health outcomes, while also slowing economic and development progress. Food Systems and Diets: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century outlines the toll that malnutrition takes on individuals, nations and economies today and forecasts the expanding costs and consequences if these trends continue. The report, launched today at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), provides a guide for governments and decision-makers to change course through action and investment to create food systems that promote health and deliver quality diets.

“Nutrition is not about just feeding people, it is about powering life and the growth of individuals, communities and nations,” said the H.E. John Kufuor, former President of Ghana and co-chair of the Global Panel. “If we do not reshape food systems to prioritize nutrition, we are missing an opportunity to create a stronger, healthier and more prosperous future.”

Food systems, which include how food is grown, raised, transported, processed and marketed, play a central role in delivering high-quality diets, but today’s food systems are too focused on quantity and not enough on quality. Low-quality diets are a driving force in increasing rates of overweight, obesity and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, while also fueling non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. 

Without immediate action, the situation is set to worsen dramatically over the next 20 years as powerful drivers of change such as population growth, climate change and urbanization converge on our food systems. Without significant changes in policies and investments by 2030, the number of overweight and obese people will have increased from 1.33 billion in 2005 to 3.28 billion, or one-third of the projected global population. This is a major concern as no country to date has successfully reversed growth in obesity once it has been allowed to develop.

“Our food systems are failing us,” said Lawrence Haddad, a report author and chair of the project’s Lead Expert Group. “The foods that are produced, are affordable and are chosen have been changing fast and will continue to do so. Now is the time to take action to ensure that food systems and nutrition are helping to power fuel development—not hold it back.”

Data from the report shows that while income growth can help to alleviate hunger, it does not guarantee accessibility to healthier, quality diets. While many people today have better diets than before, the intake of foods that undermine diet quality has increased even faster. For example, the sale of ultra-processed food and beverages rose from one-third of those in high income countries in 2000 to more than half by 2015.

“We must rethink how we look at nutrition and food systems. Nutrition is not just an health and social development issue, but an investment that can spur economic growth,” said Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank and member of the Global Panel. “Nutrition fuels gray matter infrastructure—the minds of the next generation that will drive progress and innovation. If we do not act, we will fail to unleash the full potential of millions of people around the world.”

The report calls on governments, donors and global partners to put food systems at the center of global action, including the Sustainable Development Goals. While policy must be tailored to meet country needs, priority actions at the global and national levels include:

  • Prioritize improvements in women’s diet quality;
  • Develop policies to regulate product formulation, labeling, advertising, promotion and taxes to incentivize production of high-quality foods and inform consumers;
  • Use public sector purchasing power to institutionalize high-quality diets;
  • Improve availability, affordability and safety of fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds; and
  • Foster increased collaboration and data access across agriculture, health, social protection and commerce.

“This Report makes clear the enormous challenge posed by malnutrition and poor diets generally to the detriment of many millions of individuals and indeed whole economies,” said Sir John Beddington, former UK Chief Scientific Advisor and co-chair of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. “The level of effort required to address this problem is not dissimilar to the sort of effort that has been used by the international community to address the issues of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other pandemic diseases.”

To support a coordinated effort, the report provides a simple decision-making tool to help policy makers identify which actions will help leverage food systems toward improved diet quality. This innovative, six-step tool will help policy makers prioritize realistic actions based on local contexts. The gains from applying this tool, the report argues, could be very substantial toward ensuring better nutrition for all.

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Food Systems and Diets: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century was commissioned by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition to identify decisions governments and decision-makers can take now to ensure delivery of high-quality diets into the future, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Technical report development was overseen by a Lead Expert Group. Additional information on the process can be found on the project's page.

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