Build Healthy, Sustainable Food Systems to Fight Malnutrition
Malnutrition in all its forms is an intolerable burden, not only on national health systems, but on the entire cultural, social and economic fabric of nations. It is a major impediment to development and the full realization of human potential. Many developing countries now face multiple burdens of malnutrition, with people living in the same communities—sometimes even within the same households—suffering from hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and diet-related non-communicable diseases.
Increased food output has put greater stress on natural resources, degrading soils, polluting and exhausting fresh water supplies, encroaching on forests, depleting wild fish stocks and reducing biodiversity. More intensive farming, combined with massive food wastage, have also made the problems worse.
Healthy and sustainable food systems for healthier people
Current approaches to food production are simply not sustainable today, let alone in 2050, when we will have to feed nine billion people. Fortunately, we have the means to transform our production systems and consumption patterns to ensure nutrition-sensitive food systems.
A food system approach – from production to processing, storage, transportation, marketing, retailing and consumption – is key to promoting healthy diets and improving nutrition as isolated interventions have limited impacts. Creating strong and resilient food systems is the most practical, cost-efficient and sustainable way to address all forms of malnutrition. It must recognize that the vast majority of family farmers today are women, typically also the primary caregivers in homes.
We need to reshape food systems to sustainably produce foods and enable consumption conducive to better health while protecting and promoting the capacity of future generations to feed themselves. Nutrition must become one of the primary objectives of food system policies, interventions and investments, ensuring access to diverse and balanced diets.
Poor and monotonous diets—high in carbohydrate-rich staples, but lacking in diversity—are a major contributing factor to malnutrition. Since food systems have become increasingly complex and strongly influence people’s ability to consume healthy diets, coherent action and innovative food system solutions are needed to ensure access to sustainable, balanced and healthy diets for all.
These solutions should include the production, availability, accessibility and affordability of a variety of cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruits and animal source foods, including fish, meat, eggs and dairy products. Healthy diets contain adequate macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein), fibre and essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in line with World Health Organisation’s recommendations.
Consumption of meat, milk and eggs is growing rapidly in developing countries, providing more nutritious diets to populations than was previously the case. In addition, the livestock sector improves livelihoods and contributes to economic growth and incomes in rural economies. We must manage livestock production sustainably, since it contributes to climate change, environmental stress, transmission of diseases and other health issues due to increasing meat consumption. At every stage, resources must be used more efficiently, with less adverse impacts. Getting more and better food from water, land, and labour saves resources for the future and makes food systems more sustainable.
Greater commitment, better governance
All key sectors and players throughout the food system must be involved to make better use of food systems for improved nutrition. This requires better governance, a common vision and, above all, political commitment and coherent leadership, fostering participation and consultation among all stakeholders.
Globally, about a third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. In developing countries, most losses occur at the farm level and along the supply chain before reaching consumers. Reducing such losses, by improving harvesting, storage, processing and distribution practices, could increase food supplies, reduce food prices and reduce pressure on land and other scarce resources. In developed countries, the bulk of food waste occurs after purchase, so greater focus should be placed on consumer education and information.
There is the need to create an enabling environment to make it easier for consumers to make healthier food choices. Promoting healthier lifestyles through nutrition education, information and examples must be more effective. Changes in practices can reduce food waste and contribute to sustainable resource use.
Investing in better nutrition offers high economic returns. If US$1.2 billion per year is invested for five years to reduce micronutrient deficiencies, thus ensuring better health, less child deaths and stunting, as well as increased future earnings, generating annual economic gains to society worth around US$15 billion – a benefit to cost ratio of almost 13 to one.
The Second International Conference on Nutrition, held in Rome in late 2014, galvanised political commitment to enhance nutrition for all through better policies and international cooperation. Broad participation by all interested stakeholders in a coordinated and sustained effort over the next decade can be decisive for success.