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What will it take to achieve a major acceleration in delivering healthy diets?

By Professor Charlotte Watts, Chief Scientific Advisor and Director of Research and Evidence, DFID

Last week, I was part of a panel for the UK launch of the Global Panel’s Foresight report: Food systems and diets: Facing the challenges of the 21st century. Hosted by the Global Panel together with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture and Food for Development, the event was held at the House of Commons in Westminster. This report is important. Historically, nutrition policies have concentrated on delivering food to address the hunger gap. In the context of increasing life expectancy and urbanising populations, this is no longer sufficient. Today, 159 million children are stunted and 50 million are wasted. Alongside this, more than 2 billion people are overweight or obese. On our current trajectory, the report estimates that the ‘business as usual’ approach will result in half the population suffering from either under-nutrition or obesity across the world, with major implications for future patterns of morbidity and mortality. The report generates a new vision - highlighting that food systems need to be repositioned from feeding to nourishing people, and rise to the complex challenges of ensuring affordable, safe and nutritious diets for all.

The report highlights the impact of major drivers of change in dietary patterns, including population growth, rising incomes, and the influences of globalisation on patterns of food availability and aspirations about diet. Drivers such as rapid urbanisation magnify the challenges - particularly in Africa where the urban population is expected to double by 2040 to 1 billion. In the report a striking set of data from several African cities showed that, alongside urbanisation and increasing socio-economic status, diets shift, with increasing consumption of highly processed foods. Nutrition is clearly an important health issue, but the solutions do not lie in the health sector alone. Just as a multi-sectoral response was needed for HIV, achieving strong nutrition will require a new vision that goes beyond agriculture and health, to encompass trade and the environment, and that harnesses the power of governments, the private sector and consumers, to achieve better diets.

The best evidence and science will be needed to guide policies and decision making. There are examples where governments are working hard towards tackling under-nutrition and obesity, building nutrition into national strategies and working to integrate these at the regional and district levels. We must learn from such examples and translate what works into ‘business as usual’. With more and more people recognising the importance of addressing malnutrition, the Foresight report comes at a pivotal time, providing fresh insights and evidence into changes in diets across the world. Importantly, the report sets out some very practical tools and approaches to tackle these challenges. Some, like bio-fortification, already have a strong evidence base. Others require us to try out new approaches and test what works.

Political commitment and leadership will be central to success. World leaders and governments are being called upon to take action and reshape the global food system. In July, the 2016 Global Nutrition Report was launched, indicating that progress was not happening fast enough and that many countries are off track to reach global targets on malnutrition. The Nutrition for Growth event at the Rio Olympics and, the launch of the Decade of Action on Nutrition both call for sustained political will and to turn commitments into action. This report has already been launched around the world at the FAO in Rome, at a South Asian event in Delhi, at the World Food Prize event in the USA and at the Africa Day for Food and Nutrition Security in Ghana. We are starting to see increased attention and momentum. With the right stakeholder management and championing from Global Panel members, the Foresight report can be used to inspire and energise decision-makers. I was pleased to see the enthusiasm and commitment to the findings of the report, and I Iook forward to seeing its impact in bringing about strong, sustainable nutrition sensitive policies and practice around the world, to ensure that people have access to safe, affordable and nutritious food.