Denouncing the huge social and economic costs of malnutrition, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva today called for resolute efforts to eradicate malnutrition as well as hunger from around the world.
In a recorded statement marking the launch of FAO's flagship annual publication The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA), Graziano da Silva said that although the world has registered some progress on hunger, one form of malnutrition, there was still "a long way ahead".
"FAO's message is that we must strive for nothing less than the eradication of hunger and malnutrition", he declared.
The report Food systems for better nutrition notes that although some 870 million people were still hungry in the world in 2010-2012, this is just a fraction of the billions of people whose health, wellbeing and lives are blighted by malnutrition.
Two billion people suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies, while 1.4 billion are overweight, of whom 500 million are obese, according to SOFA. Twenty six percent of all children under five are stunted and 31 percent suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.
The cost of malnutrition to the global economy in lost productivity and health care costs are "unacceptably high" and could account for as much as 5 percent of the global gross domestic product -- $3.5 trillion dollars, or $500 per person. That is almost the entire annual GDP of Germany, Europe's largest economy.
In social terms, child and maternal malnutrition continue to reduce the quality of life and life expectancy of millions of people, while obesity-related health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes, affect millions more.
To combat malnutrition, SOFA makes the case that healthy diets and good nutrition must start with food and agriculture. The way we grow, raise, process, transport and distribute food influences what we eat, the report says, noting that improved food systems can make food more affordable, diverse and nutritious.
Specific recommendations for action include:
• Use appropriate agricultural policies, investment and research to increase productivity, not only of staple grains like maize, rice and wheat, but also of legumes, meat, milk, vegetables and fruit, which are all rich in nutrients.
• Cut food losses and waste, which currently amount to one third of the food produced for human consumption every year. That could help make food more available and affordable as well as reduce pressure on land and other resources.
• Improve the nutritional performance of supply chains, enhancing the availability and accessibility of a wide diversity of foods. Properly organized food systems are key to more diversified and healthy diets.
• Help consumers make good dietary choices for better nutrition through education, information and other actions.
• Improve the nutritional quality of foods through fortification and reformulation.
• Make food systems more responsive to the needs of mothers and young children. Malnutrition during the critical ‘first 1000 days' from conception can cause lasting damage to women's health and life-long physical and cognitive impairment in children.
Giving women greater control over resources and incomes benefits their and their children's health, the report says. Policies, interventions and investment in labour-saving farming technologies and rural infrastructure, as well as social protection and services can also make important contributions to the health and nutrition of women, infants and young children.
Projects that have proved successful in raising nutrition levels include enhanced production, marketing and consumption of local vegetables and pulses in East Africa; promotion of home gardens in West Africa; encouragement of mixed vegetable and animal farming systems together with income-generating activities in some Asian countries; breeding staple crops such as sweet potatoes to raise their micronutrient content; and public-private partnerships to enrich products like yoghurt or cooking oil with nutrients.
Making food systems enhance nutrition is a complex task requiring strong political commitment and leadership at the highest levels, broad-based partnerships and coordinated approaches with other important sectors such as health and education, according to SOFA.
"A great many actors and institutions must work together across sectors to more effectively reduce undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight and obesity," the report says.
"Food systems governance that is providing leadership, coordinating effectively and fostering collaboration among the many stakeholders, is a first priority," the report adds.