'Piecemeal action will not do'

Urgent research shift needed to fight dual threat of malnutrition & obesity

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

'Poor diets are responsible for more of the global burden of ill health than sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco combined.' ©iStock/borgogniels
'Poor diets are responsible for more of the global burden of ill health than sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco combined.' ©iStock/borgogniels

Related tags Nutrition

Leading researchers and experts in nutrition policy have come together to propose a global research agenda that aims to shift the focus and find solutions to global issues of food security and under nutrition.

Estimates suggest 800 million people in the world are hungry, while some two billion have micronutrient deficiency and 1.9bn are overweight or obese. Yet, our global understanding about the quality of our diets is limited, says the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.

Writing in a Nature​ commentary​, seven top researchers and policy experts warn that the concerted international effort and shift needed to combat the duel threat of malnutrition and obesity is equivalent to the efforts marshalled to tackle HIV/AIDS, malaria and smoking.

“Poor diets are responsible for more of the global burden of ill health than sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco combined,” ​wrote the authors, led by Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) executive director Lawrence Haddad and professor Corinna Hawkes from the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London. “In the next few decades, food systems will be under further stresses from population and income growth, urbanisation, globalisation, climate change and increasingly scarce natural resources.”

“In particular, urgent interdisciplinary research is needed to support concerted policy action,”​ the experts warned. “Piecemeal action will not do: the trends are so large and interconnected that the entire food system needs overhauling.”

Speaking with NutraIngredients, professor Hawkes said that businesses of all shapes and sizes – and from all parts of the supply chain – have a role to play in addressing the issues.

“We need a greater focus not just on big manufacturers but also on the retail side,”​ she commented – noting that while some sections of the global population tend to rely largely on street vendors as a primary source of food and nutrition, for others large supermarket chains are the most important.

“We should start with eaters: Where are they getting food from? Growing food is a minority now, for the most part people are buying. We need to ask where they are getting it from.”

“We need to look at where are people acquiring foods and then ask what influences what these retailers sell,”​ professor Hawkes said. “Ask where are the bottlenecks in that chain, from people buying food, to retail, right back to the agricultural production.”

Research priorities

By setting out ten priority areas for future research, Haddad and colleagues hope to galvanise an urgent cross-disciplinary response to issues that countries and companies cannot overcome on their own – adding that researchers, governments, industry experts and funders must commit to meeting the complex research challenges.

The ten priorities for research are:

1)      Identify points in the food production process where research is most needed.

2)      Make more data on diets widely available and establish open access data portals.

3)      Characterise what makes a healthy diet in all countries.

4)      Analyse how to tackle the coexistence of different forms of malnutrition.

5)      Understand effective combinations of local and long-distance supply chains.

6)      Analyse incentives for businesses to improve diets.

7)      Shape healthy diets while considering environmental impact.

8)      Study the impact of supply and demand of different foods.

9)      Identify the appropriate economic levers of change.

10)  Fix measurement of each food's impact on health, climate and other issues.

Professor Hawkes said all parts of the food supply chain have an important role to play in meeting the future research challenges – adding that while multinational brands, national retailers, and local producers all have an important role to play, large agribusiness producers are also a vital part of the solution.

Professor Corrina Hawkes

“Big agribusiness have immense power but are not necessarily known to consumers … They play a huge role because they manage so much food and such a big part of the food supply.”

“We need to ask if that is preventing innovation and entrepreneurship,”​ she said – noting that around 45% of investment goes directly into R&D efforts relating to maize and corn, which then lead to the production of corn syrups and sugars, among other ingredients.

“Are these investments made by large companies really in the interest of healthy diets?”​ she questioned.

‘Double duty’

Professor Hawkes said tackling different forms of malnutrition simultaneously as part of a ‘double duty’​ concept could be a good place to begin.

“One of those areas that can be fixed relatively quickly is to find ways to tackle under nutrition and imbalanced diets simultaneously,”​ she said adding that the concept of ensuring new policies inadvertently do no harm, in addition to identifying key actions that can tackle both malnutrition and obesity​ and the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) at the same time is a ‘relatively straightforward concept’​.

“We have the knowledge and delivery platforms for that can be rolled out. It’s just not being done yet,”​ she said – noting that a focus on good nutrition in the first 1000 days, including actions like promoting breastfeeding or better infant feeding programmes, can help to avoid both the risks of undernutrition and obesity.

Source: Nature
Volume 540, Pages 30–32, December 2016, doi: 10.1038/540030a
“A new global research agenda for food”

Authors: Lawrence Haddad, Corinna Hawkes, et al

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