Unsustainable food systems and diets and severe deficiencies in nutrients like vitamin A, iron and iodine have created malnutrition and hunger problems affecting more than a third of the world’s population, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has said.
In a new book written with the NGO Bioversity International called Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity, the FAO runs a rule over some of the most pressing nutrition and agricultural problems on the planet along with remedying actions.
“Regardless of the many successes of agriculture in the last three decades, it is clear that food systems, and diets, are not sustainable,” wrote Barbara Burlingame, principal officer of FAO’s Nutrition and Consumer Protection Division, in a forewardto the book.
“While over 900 million people in the world suffer from hunger, even more – about 1.5 billion – are overweight or obese, and an estimated two billion suffer from micronutrient malnutrition including vitamin A, iron, or iodine deficiency.”
The book makes the point that the quality of agriculture and food systems is as important as the quantity of food, if problems like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity are to be tackled.
The FAO and Bioversity International point out that industrial agriculture and long-distance travel have proliferated calorie-rich, nutrient poor foods which has led to, “an overall simplification of diets and reliance on a limited number of energy-rich foods.”
“Cheap, energy-dense foods have also come at the cost of flavour, diversity and cultural connection.”
To feed the world’s growing population, “There needs to be a nutrition-driven process,” Burlingame said. “It hasn’t been nutrition-driven in the past. If it is a nutrition-driven process we have a hope.”
FAO and Rome-based Bioversity International point out that 60% of plant-sourced dietary energy comes from three crops – corn, wheat and rice.
They warned that plant-based foods were being abandoned for diets rich in meat, dairy products, fats and sugar.
“There is an urgent need to change the paradigm of agricultural production in order to integrate the dimension of nutritional quality in our decisions as to what to produce and where,” wrote Emile Frison, director general of Bioversity International.
“This requires us to move beyond the major staples and to look at the many hundreds and thousands of neglected and underutilized plant and animal species that mean the difference between an unsustainable and a sustainable diet.”
African night shade, cowpea and pumpkin leaves, spider plant and vine spinach in Kenya; foxtail and finger millet in India and South American cereals like amaranth were examples of sustainable, nutritious cereals.
The United Nations has also designated 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.
Global hunger summit
This Sunday the British prime minister, David Cameron, will host a global hunger summit in London as the Olympic Games concludes in the city.
Cameron said: "It's really important that, while the eyes of the world are on Britain and we are going to put on this fantastic show for the Olympics, we remember people in other parts of the world who, far from being excited about the Olympics, are actually worried about their next meal and whether they are getting enough to eat."
Save the Children estimates 2.6 million children die every year because of malnutrition.
The book can be downloaded free-of-charge here.