Our food systems are distorted, and unless bolder actions are taken soon to fix them, humanity is at grave risk of increasing hunger, obesity and diet-related illnesses. It is a stark warning, but one that must be heeded if all countries are to fulfil their commitment to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal number 2 - eradicating hunger and all forms of malnutrition.
This week, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has released the latest information on global hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition trends, together with our UN partners, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The 2019 edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report (SOFI) shows that while the percentage of people in the world who suffer from hunger has remained stable in the last three years, the number of hungry people is still slowly on the rise. More than 820 million people still do not have enough to eat on a daily basis.
Furthermore, while conflicts and climate change remain the main causes of hunger, SOFI 2019 reveals that hunger has also increased in many countries where the economy has slowed down or contracted, mostly in middle-income countries of Latin America. In order to tackle this situation, it is critical to implement and strengthen economic and social policies to counteract the effects of adverse economic cycles, while avoiding cuts in essential services.
This year's report also goes beyond hunger, providing estimates for the first time of the number of people moderately food insecure who face uncertainties about obtaining food and have reduced the quality and quantity of the food they eat. Considering all people in the world affected by this more moderate level of food insecurity, together with those who suffer from hunger, we estimate that over 2 billion people, or more than a quarter of the world population, do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. This problem affects people not only from low- and middle-income countries, but also from high-income countries. For example, it includes 8 percent of the population in North America and Europe.
At the same time, no region in the world is exempt from the growing pandemic of obesity. It has increased in all regions, particularly among school-age children and adults, and today there are more obese people than hungry people in the world.
One important factor behind this surge of obesity is that current food systems have increased the availability of, and accessibility to, ultra-processed food, which is very energy-dense: high in fat and sugar, as well as salt and artificial ingredients. This kind of food is often cheaper and easier to access and prepare than fresh food, particularly for poor people in urban areas with scarce resources for food. The stress of living with uncertain access to food and going extended periods without food can also lead to physiological changes that can contribute to overweight and obesity. A malnourished child has a higher risk of obesity later in life.
The socioeconomic costs of malnutrition are staggering. There is a medical consensus that obesity is a risk factor for many non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer. In fact, the most recent data show that obesity is contributing to 4 million deaths globally every year, with an annual estimated cost of $2 trillion in lost economic productivity and direct healthcare costs worldwide.
FAO and the World Bank have developed a set of policies to help prevent or reduce overweight and obesity. It is important to take action on three fronts:
First, to increase the availability of healthy food. This can be done by: (i) regulating the levels of salt, fat and sugar in food products; (ii) banning or restricting sugar-sweetened beverages in schools; and (iii) promoting accessibility to fresh food markets.
The second front of action is to implement fiscal and pricing policies. People need financial incentives to buy healthy food, such as the implementation of taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages or on foods high in salt, sugar and fat; as well as the provision of coupons for vulnerable groups to buy fresh produce in markets.
The third front is about information, education and marketing. Consumers must be aware of what they are eating, and also be encouraged to consume healthy food. It is fundamental, for instance, to ensure more complete and understandable labelling for the public. It is equally important to promote media campaigns to stimulate healthier food options, to restrict marketing of unhealthy food to children, and to make nutrition education mandatory in schools.
Ending hunger is no longer our only big nutrition challenge. Fighting obesity is also fundamental for sustainable development.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
José Graziano da Silva is Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.