Nourishment Takes Precedent in the 21st-Century Fight Against Food Insecurity

October 13, 2016 12:00 PM

By Sean McNealy

DES MOINES, Iowa – Food systems are part of the problem and the solution in global food security challenges. But so are the stakeholder’s hearts and minds in the private and public sectors of food security. Providing basic food to resource-strained countries is not enough.  Developing high-quality diets that address nourishment head-on can be a difficult task when cultural staple foods and taste preferences vary.

A report published in September by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition focuses on how food systems need to shift from feeding people to nourishing people. This report was presented by a panel of food and nutrition experts at the World Food Prize.

Part of nourishment is integrating better nutrition into popular regional foods. Data from the report shows that sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco use combined are not the biggest threat to mortality and morbidity. Poor diets pose the greatest threat to human health.

“Diets are now the number one risk factor of disease,” said Lawrence Haddad, the executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition and a member of the “Food and diet: facing the challenges of the 21st century,” panel at the World Food Prize.

Other panel members, including Emmy Simmons of the Global Panel, Howarth Bouis, the founding director of HarvestPlus, and Bonnie McClafferty, the director of the Agriculture and Nutrition Global Program within the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, agreed that public and private sectors need to understand diet micronutrients.

Malnutrition affects all 193 countries, and 800 million people are hungry worldwide. In addition to the millions of hungry, there are billions who lack micronutrients, such as zinc and iron, and an increasing number of people who are overweight or obese in nearly every country.

“The topline message of the report is ‘wake up,’” Haddad said. “I don’t think the consequences of a poor diet have hit policymakers.”

Policymakers need to demand more from their food systems, Haddad said. The public needs to know that the food system goes beyond production. Storage, trade and retail have a role in feeding a hungry world, but the missing link is a focus on nutrition, he said.

According to the report, a poor diet stunts children physically and mentally, resulting in a higher likelihood of living in poverty. Health care costs increase, too, with more diagnoses of diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases caused by a lack of nutrition.

Consumers make food choices based on their immediate food environment, so geographic location and income limit the type of food that consumers acquire. Consumers in rural settings will have different options than those in urban settings and vice versa, but the requirement of basic vitamins and minerals is typically the same for everyone. The World Health Organization recommends limiting meat consumption and adding fruit, vegetables and nuts as simple steps that consumers in the developed world can take to manage their nutrition. In less-developed nations, these recommendations can be difficult to abide by as resources are more scarce.

Solutions to provide nourishment in the food system in the 21st century need to be driven by focusing on behavioral changes of consumers, Haddad said. Solutions exist, but coordination and cooperation must occur to bring awareness to the importance of nutrient-rich diets.

“We have to appeal to the heartstrings, appeal to the imagination,” Haddad said.

This story is published in collaboration with the University of Missouri. Read more about their reporting project at the World Food Prize here.

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