By Rachel Nugent and M. Ann Tutwiler
We live on a planet where 925 million people are hungry, and 1.4 billion are overweight.
Both of these horrifying situations have to do with food insecurity. For many years, most people thought of food insecurity as being about hunger caused by an insufficient quantity of food, but this is no longer always the case.
Increasingly, programs must include those who are getting excess energy and insufficient vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber from the wrong kinds of food or an imbalanced diet.
Before we go further, let’s examine what food security really is. In 1996, the Food and Agriculture Organization defined it as: “Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global level [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
The definition includes all aspects of the malnutrition spectrum, and while underweight and stunting are more traditional concerns, we must pay greater attention to obesity and its consequences. It is no longer rare to see overweight children with nutrient insufficiency.
There are natural links between food security and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, diabetes and cancer, which together cause nearly two out of three deaths in the world (80 percent of those in developing countries). People everywhere have increasingly similar diets and increasingly similar health risks. Even very poor populations are showing high rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and other diet-related NCDs -– while still facing hunger and traditional food insecurity.
Today is the first anniversary of the 2011 United Nations High-Level Meeting on NCDs — only the second time the UN has held a major event on a health issue — which unanimously passed a political declaration that called NCDs “one of the major challenges for development in the 21st century” and noted that “obesity, an unhealthy diet and physical inactivity have strong linkages with the four main non-communicable diseases, and are associated with higher health costs and reduced productivity.”
In 2012, food security got plenty of political attention at the highest levels: At the G8, President Barack Obama announced the New Alliance on Food Security while at the G20, and Mexican President Felipe Calderón put food security at the top of the agenda and launched AgResults. During the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced his Zero Hunger Challenge.
Despite all the attention, however, hardly a word was said about food security’s connection to NCDs. That needs to change. Agriculture and food play an important role in the illness and early deaths from NCDs that arise from imbalanced diets, empty calories and overconsumption that are pervasive in high- and middle-income countries and increasingly in developing countries.
Policymakers must better leverage agriculture to produce desirable health and nutrition outcomes and commercial food systems must be encouraged — and directed where necessary — to meet global food and health needs. Farmers and food producers should be incentivized to produce more fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts and whole grains. Food manufacturers have a special responsibility to ensure healthy foods are available and reduce their marketing of foods with little or no nutritional value, that are high in sodium, saturated fat and trans-fatty acids. Both consumers and producers must be helped to make needed changes in diet.
The 2011 report, “Bringing Agriculture to the Table: How Agriculture and Food Can Play a Role in Preventing Chronic Disease,” proposes recommendations on governance, policy, research, education, technology, financing and incentives that can help us all reach a future with healthier food, and fewer NCDs.
Next year, British Prime Minister David Cameron is host of the G8, and has already indicated that his government will keep food security and hunger as top issues on the G8 agenda. Civil society, including the private sector, should ensure that NCDs are also addressed there, and look for other opportunities to raise the issue of NCDs on the global as well as the country level.
SEE ALSO: Next stop, Rio
Rachel Nugent is an associate professor in Global Health at the University of Washington and the chair of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs report “Bringing Agriculture to the Table: How Agriculture and Food Can Play a Role in Preventing Chronic Disease.” M. Ann Tutwiler is the deputy director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.
This article is one of several being published to mark the first anniversary of the 2011 United Nations High-Level Meeting on NCDs on Sept. 19. The series is coordinated by Arogya World in partnership with the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network and will be housed at www.arogyaworld.org