Governments have been urged to transform agricultural and other policies to make healthy, sustainable diets more affordable and accessible for all at a time when the COVID pandemic, climate crisis, Ukraine war, economic pressures and growing inequalities are undermining global food security.
The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 report warns that the world is not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goals aimed at ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition by the target year of 2030.
Between 702 and 828 million people in the world faced hunger in 2021 while nearly one in three people around the world, around 2.31 billion people, were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021.
This is around 350 million more people than in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.
Of the seven global nutrition targets for 2030, only the outcomes for exclusive breastfeeding and stunting among children under five years of age have improved since 2012, says the report, which was prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 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 report also describes a growing gender gap in food insecurity. In 2021, 31.9 percent of women in the world were moderately or severely food insecure compared to 27.6 percent of men.
“The unequal pattern of economic recovery in 2021 among countries and the unrecovered income losses among those most affected by the pandemic have exacerbated existing inequalities and have worsened the food security situation for the populations already struggling the most to feed their families,” says the report.
“Food prices have also increased in the past year due to bottlenecks in supply chains, soaring transport costs and other disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Furthermore, the war in Ukraine, two of the biggest producers in agriculture and staple cereals globally, is disrupting supply chains and further affecting global grain, fertilizer and energy prices, leading to shortages and fuelling even higher food price inflation.
“On top of this, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme climate events are proving to be a major disrupter of supply chains, especially in low-income countries.”
Systems transformation needed
Food security and nutrition would continue to be under threat, said the report, until agrifood systems are transformed, become more resilient and are delivering lower cost nutritious foods and affordable healthy diets for all, sustainably and inclusively.
A key recommendation is that governments start rethinking how to reallocate public spending in order to reduce the cost of nutritious foods and increase the availability and affordability of healthy diets.
Worldwide support to food and agriculture amounted to almost $US 630 billion per year on average over 2013–2018. However, most current agricultural policy support is not aligned with objectives of promoting healthy diets and in many cases is actually inadvertently undermining food security and nutrition outcomes and contributing to the rise in overweight and obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases, says the report.
These policies have also triggered the rise of low-priced foods of high energy density and minimal nutritional value. At the same time, agrifood systems have become a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions and are placing excessive pressures on land, water and other natural resource systems.
Sugar or emission-intensive commodities, such as beef and milk, receive the most support worldwide despite the potentially negative impacts on health of high sugar intakes, and on climate change adaptation and mitigation due to the high carbon emissions from the livestock sector.
This support also creates relative disincentives towards producing higher amounts of nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables and leguminous crops.
“The evidence suggests that if governments repurpose the resources to prioritise food consumers, and to incentivise sustainable production, supply and consumption of nutritious foods, they will help make healthy diets less costly and more affordable for all,” says the report.
Public health policies
The report also canvasses the importance of policies to protect people from the harmful impacts of marketing of food and beverages, particularly to children, noting that 52 countries having implemented restrictions on the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children and 144 countries having adopted legal measures on marketing of breastmilk substitutes.
Taxation of energy-dense foods and foods high in fats, sugars and/or salt helps to curb demand for such foods and, by influencing the relative affordability of healthier food options, helps shift demand towards nutritious foods. Twenty-six countries have now implemented taxes on foods typically high in fats, sugars and/or salt.
“There is clear evidence from countries that this type of taxation reduces purchases of these taxed foods,” says the report, while also noting that zoning, regulations and taxation can be used to address the challenges of food deserts or swamps.
Similarly, regulatory authorities can use licensing processes to influence what types of food premises are permitted or what types of food that outlets are allowed to sell. Several authorities use these powers to avoid “food swamps” around schools by limiting, for example, hot food takeaway outlets close to school premises.
The report also highlights the value of public food procurement and service policies to “create large-scale, predictable demand for nutritious foods (both perishable foods and foods that are low in unhealthy fats, sugars and salt), thereby increasing the economic viability of producing such foods, reducing the risks and creating an accessible, guaranteed market”.
“The financial scale of government buying – representing between 12 and 20 percent of countries’ GDP with a significant proportion of those funds being spent on food – shows the potential of this policy measure to influence wider agrifood systems,” it says.
There is great scope, says the report, to expand implementation into other sectors including nurseries, universities, hospitals, residential care facilities, prisons, military, government offices and food aid programs.
The report also reviews obstacles to action, including the political and economic power of food companies and other stakeholders. It cites a review of studies regarding supermarket power in Australia, which observed that supermarkets exerted power by setting the terms of trade for suppliers, shaping societal values regarding food through discursive power, lobbying and establishing relationships with policymakers.
Looking to areas of progress, the report cites the Food Systems Summit, convened by the UN Secretary General in September 2021, where 110 countries published details of their strategy towards food system transformation, 92 percent of which featured healthy diets from sustainable agrifood systems as a priority topic.
In other positive news cited by the report, the Coalition of Action on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems For All unites global actors and countries to align, mobilise and support action towards this shared vision. At the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2021, 181 stakeholders in 78 countries made 396 new nutrition commitments.
Read the full report.
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