The future of food continues to be one of the most pressing global challenges, with malnutrition profoundly affecting every country. Around 800 million people are still undernourished, billions of people face vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and problems of overweight and obesity are growing fast and fuelling an epidemic of diet-related non-communicable diseases. With such scale and complexity, countries are trying to figure out: where do we start?
There are many frameworks, like the Second Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), and bodies, like the Global Panel, an independent group of influential experts with a commitment to tackling global challenges in food and nutrition security, that are providing guidance to governments, private sector, civil society, NGOs, research groups and academia on ways to address this challenge. But more specificity is needed, not on what needs to be done but how.
There is a lot of talk about transforming the food system from an industrial to more sustainable system. However, I wonder if pitting the two against each will drive the necessary change required. Complex problems quite often need nimble solutions that are collaborative and multi-stakeholder in approach.
With all of that in mind, here are some of my thoughts on where to start.
First, do more of what is already working. There is accumulating evidence on targeted nutrition interventions and other nutrition-sensitive programmes, like fortification and early nutrition education, that can have a significant impact and can be implemented at scale.
Second, don’t assume that every region within every country and continent will be able to grow food to meet all its needs for a quality diet. Trade at every level matters to ensure universal food security. Every attempt must be made to establish mutually beneficial trade agreements globally and locally.
Third, remember that affordability, convenience, desirability, and food safety have an impact on consumer choice. Governments and other stakeholders need to ensure there is a balanced approach in shaping an environment that empowers and enables consumers to make good choices for their own nutrition.
Fourth, do something about the fact that there is no global database on diets. We know diets to be one of the top risk factors for the global burden of diseases, but know surprisingly little about actual diets. Investments in better data gathering and analysis is needed to meet this global challenge.
Fifth, acknowledge and plan for the threats posed by changing climates, with temperature, water quality and soil health being key challenge areas for producers. Policymakers need to support innovation that will empower farmers to use their resources as sustainably as possible.
Sixth, fund research in agriculture to support a diverse diet. Far less research funding is focused on nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, lentils, pulses, and animal-source foods, including aquatic products. This must be an area of focus.
Seventh, encourage young people to take up farming. If they don’t, there simply will be no more farmers to grow our food. Engaging, attracting, and retaining youth in agriculture must be part of every national development plan.
The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the foremost inclusive international and intergovernmental platform where all stakeholders work together to ensure food security and nutrition for all. From October 15th to 19th, 2018 in Rome, the CFS will discuss and endorse the scope for the preparation of the CFS Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition. These guidelines will represent an opportunity to tackle the burden of malnutrition in a meaningful way.
We have roughly eight years left in the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition and much to achieve. The time to turn the corner has come.