From its offices overlooking centuries-old ruins of the fallen Roman Empire, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is grappling with an issue many consider a threat to modern civilization.
Global rates of malnutrition are growing at an unprecedented pace, despite progress that has been made reducing hunger and poverty.
Sandwiched between the two extremes of famine and obesity, currently one in three world citizens suffers from effects of poor diet.
If left unchecked, that ratio is expected to reach one in two by 2035, largely due to surging rates of obesity in emerging and developed economies.
“We can no longer say that malnutrition is a poor-country issue,” keynote speaker Patrick Webb, director of USAID’s Feed the Future Nutrition Innovation Lab at Tufts University in Boston, told a symposium here in early December.
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“Our diets are not helping us anymore, they are hindering us,” he said as politicians, non-government organizations, researchers and even a smattering of royalty gathered to explore how policy, trade and the private sector can make a difference.
Earlier this year, the United Nations declared 2016 to 2025 a decade of action on nutrition, calling on world leaders to place more focus on eradicating hunger and all forms of malnutrition.
Dietary risks have displaced alcohol and tobacco as the leading cause of non-communicable disease worldwide, accounting for 10 per cent of the global burden of disease and disability. Diet-related diseases stemming from obesity are rising the fastest in emerging economies where consumers are spending their growing food dollars on highly processed, sugary and high-fat foods that expand their waistline.
The population of overweight and obese globally is 2.458 billion, triple the number of undernourished in the world.
The FAO places the cost to the global economy at $3.5 trillion per year or $500 per capita.
Webb said the problem is complex but fixable. One study put the cost of addressing global malnutrition at US$7 billion per year.
However, the momentum is going in the wrong direction, a phenomenon speakers at the symposium attributed to a global food system that disproportionately favours foods made from grains. For example, Webb said annual subsidies for a few major cereal crops are roughly a hundredfold greater than what it would take to fund actions globally to tackle four forms of undernutrition.
Business as usual will create a “huge nutrition and health crisis,” he warned. “Tweaking at the margins on this is not enough. We need a radical transformation of our food system to nourish, not just feed, nine billion people,” Webb said in reference to FAO projections of the world’s population levels in 2050.
Webb said the problem is partly related to distortions in prices, supports to farmers and research priorities.
While farmers will continue to grow the crops best suited to their operations, the incentives through policy and subsidies they receive for those crops must change. “Really what I am arguing is that we need to pay more attention to those distortions,” he said in an interview.
“Most public research funding also supports mainly a few cereal crops,” he said. “Much more needs to go to support nutrient-rich products if the intent is to have these available for all consumers.”
Turning the tide won’t be easy, but the stakes are high — not only for human health but for the environment, said Anna Herforth, a researcher and consultant specializing in the links between nutrition, agriculture and the environment.
“By 2050, the same dietary trends would result in an 80 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” Herforth said, noting that would make it impossible to contain global warming to manageable levels.
“More of the same is unsustainable for both human and environmental health. So we need a really fundamental shift in policies to support diversified production for healthy diets and more environmental sustainability,” she said.
Herforth said agricultural investment priorities are caught in a time warp dating back to the 1960s when scientists behind the Green Revolution focused on achieving significant yield gains of staple grains to avert a looming humanitarian crisis.
The issue today isn’t a lack of calories. Although distribution issues remain, the world’s farmers are producing enough calories. The looming concern is a shortage of nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables and fruits in human diets.
Yet the bulk of research and investment spending remains focused on corn, rice and wheat.
“The international and national research systems are set up in a way that makes research on these same traditional crops quite easy to do, whereas we would need quite a bit of change to enable a greater emphasis on the fruits, vegetables, legumes and animal-sourced foods,” she said.
“We need to shift this. Why would we invest in more of the same when that will result in more of the same?”
She said many argue that the food system is driven by consumer demand. But there are several supply-side barriers that give lie to that argument.
Nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are perishable, which makes them more risky for farmers to grow — especially in underdeveloped economies where access to storage, transportation, processing and markets is poor or non-existent.
Addressing those issues so smallholder farmers could grow a more diverse range of crops would serve a dual purpose of boosting incomes because these also tend to be higher-value crops. Increased biodiversity would also favour environmental quality.
Herforth said the food industry is also guilty of skewing consumer choices. “They spend a lot of money to influence consumers to demand the products that they are able to manufacture from cheap supplies of starchy staples and oilseeds that have received the most investment.”
Webb called for new dietary guidelines to be aimed at policy-makers rather than consumers. “Policy-makers have to demand much more from the food system rather than passively leaving it up to the private sector,” he said.
“Since diet is a modifiable risk factor for disease, then we need to modify it.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists have collaborated to create an annual award recognizing excellence in global food security reporting. The prize includes financial support to attend an IFAJ conference as well as an FAO event. As the first recipient, FBC editorial director Laura Rance recently attended the International Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Improved Nutrition at the FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy.