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World Food Day sees call for bolder action to make healthy and sustainable diets available to all

Photo: WFP/Deborah Nguyen, WFP food assistance beneficiary getting ready to prepare a meal for her family, Tanganyika, Kalemie (DRC)
Rome - At the global World Food Day ceremony today speakers called for bolder and faster action across sectors to make healthy and sustainable diets available and affordable for all.

This year's World Food Day - with the theme "Our actions are our future. Healthy diets for a #ZeroHunger world" - takes place in the context of rising global hunger but also increasing overweight and obesity. FAO and its partners believe that affordable solutions to reduce all forms of malnutrition exist, but they require greater global commitment and action.

"Collective action is the high road to tackling a global challenge such as hunger in the world," said Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in his keynote speech.

The Prime Minister gave reassurance of Italy's support for a "vision of integrated agriculture that supports the planet and cultural identity", and stressed the need to understand development "as a genuine international collaboration, as politics in the noblest sense" to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Both Conte and FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu welcomed an announcement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres of the convening of a UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 as part of the Decade of Action to deliver the SDGs. Conte proposed that Italy host the event, and was thanked by Qu for the offer.

In a World Food Day video message Guterres called rising hunger "unacceptable" as the world wastes more than 1 billion tonnes of food every year.

Pope Francis in a special message read out at the event, stressed that the "battle against hunger and malnutrition will not end as long as the logic of the market prevails and profit is sought at any cost".

The pontiff urged for a cultivation of lifestyles inspired by gratitude, moderation and solidarity, and the need to promote economic institutions and social initiatives that support the poor.

"We must come to realize that we are accumulating and wasting is the bread of the poor,"  Pope Francis added.

In his opening remarks, FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu warned how "hunger and malnutrition will be major barriers to achieving the SDGs by 2030 if we do not act now!"

The FAO chief stressed the importantce of collaboration and the role everyone needs to play - from governments, food companies, the public sector, research instituions to consumers - to make progress towards enabling healthy diets for all, and to halt and hopefully reverse the current trend of rising hunger, overwight and obesity.  

"We need strong political will and commitment. We need to invest in nutrition and for nutrition. We need to walk hand-in-hand and build healthy and sustainable food systems," added the FAO Director-General.

The FAO chief anounced the UN agency's biennial theme for 2020-2021 -  Promoting healthy diets and preventing all forms of malnutrition - and reaffirmed FAO's committment to the gloabl goal of ending hunger and malnutrtion in all its forms by 2030.

In his remarks, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Gilbert F. Houngbo said: "We can reach our commitment to end hunger. Our success will depend on transforming global food systems so that they are inclusive of women, youth and indigenous peoples. So that they are sustainable - environmentally, socially, and economically. And so that they contribute to healthy diets for all. With the right policies and the right investments in agricultural and rural development we can create a food secure world where both hunger and poverty are dramatically reduced."

David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) for his part echoed the call to end food waste and urged individuals around the world to join WFP's campaign to #StopTheWaste: "The amount of food wasted globally is enough to feed another 2 billion people, so in a world where every five seconds a child dies from preventable causes like hunger and malnutrition this is totally unacceptable. We have a solution to hunger in our hands, just by being better stewards of the food we already have. If we all come together, and work together, we can achieve Zero Hunger - but we must not rest until every child, everywhere, goes to bed with a full stomach."

Sergio Mattarella, Italy's President sent a message a support, highlighting that "food insecurity is certainly one of the worst consequences of climate change".

Ministers from several countries also spoke at the event - a testimony of the importance of making healthy diets accessible and affordable for all. 

They were: Edward Francisco Centeno Gadea Minister for Agriculture of Nicaragua, Kassoum Denon Minister Commissioner for Food Security of Mali, Elina Kalkku Vice Minister, Development Policy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, and Mariam bint Saeed Hareb Al Mehairi Minister of State for Food Security of the United Arab Emirates. Joaquim José Gusmão dos Reis Martins Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries of Timor-Leste sent a message of support.

Making the case for healthy and sustainable diets

During his remarks, the FAO Director-General stressed that there are over 820 million hungry people in the world. He noted however, that while the total number of those chronically undernourished has been increasing in recent years, the rate is decreasing compared to total population of the planet.  

Qu also underscored that over 2 billion adults, and nearly 380 million children and adolescents, are overweight or obese. This is because our current food systems are failing to ensure food security for all and deliver on healthy diets whilst contributing to environmental degradation.

From agricultural production to processing and retailing, there is little space for fresh, locally produced foods as high-yielding and profitable crops take priority.

Although enough food is produced globally, food is not produced where it is most needed.

Recent estimates by FAO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicate that globally, agricultural productivity is projected to increase faster than the 15 percent increase in the demand for agricultural products over the next decade - with decelerating greenhouse gas emissions and without substantial expansion in land use.

But instead of providing incentives to farmers to produce more nutritious food, many countries keep on subsidizing products with low nutritional value, favoring staple foods - wheat, rice, maize - over fruits and vegetables. This has negative implications for nutrition and dietary diversity.

Nutrient-dense foods like eggs, milk, fruits, and vegetables can be very expensive, especially in poorer countries, which makes it harder for people to move away from staples. In richer countries, and a growing number of lower income countries, unhealthy foods are cheaper, readily available, and more convenient.

At the same time, less time is spent preparing meals at home, and consumers, especially in urban areas, increasingly rely on supermarkets, fast food outlets, street food vendors and take-away restaurants.

People have moved from seasonal, mainly plant-based and fibre-rich dishes to energy-dense diets - high in refined starches, sugar, fats, salt, processed foods, meat and other animal-source products.

Unhealthy diets are one of the leading causes of death across the globe from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and certain cancers, taking a large toll on national health budgets. Obesity is projected to cost $2 trillion annually in lost economic productivity and direct health care costs worldwide. 

How to make healthy diets available and accessible for all  

To address this situation, FAO calls for: better incentives for the world's agricultural producers; easier-to-understand and more comprehensive food labels and responsible advertising to help consumers choose healthier diets; more sustainable trade with clear rules; and a push to think of nutrition as part of food safety.

The private sectors should also re-formulate products to make them more nutritious whilst food companies that produce nutritious foods could be given incentives to make their products more accessible and affordable.

ICT should also be applied more widely along agriculture value chains to create new platforms, reduce urban-rural disparity and the potential of the smart phone as a new farming tool should be tapped for higher productivity.

FAO is working with partners and communities around the world to step up efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 - Zero Hunger and healthy diets.

This includes developing with the World Health Organization guiding principles on "Healthy Sustainable Diets", supporting the implementation of the Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025), and providing support for global, regional and national food security and nutrition policies, strategies and programmes.

Note: FAO celebrates World Food Day each year on 16 October to commemorate the founding of the Organization in 1945. Events are organized in some 150 countries across the world.