For ICN2 to succeed, we need a new food system paradigm

By Marc Van Ameringen 13 November 2014

From seed to stomach, there are opportunities to make food more nutritious at each stage of the value chain. Photo by: Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition

By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion — and all will need nutritious diets. Yet despite the intrinsic relationship between the food we grow and the food we eat, the agriculture and nutrition sectors are only just now beginning to overcome decades of mutual isolation. The high rates of malnutrition among farming communities are a stark reminder that the link between agriculture and nutrition is not as it should be.

Today, we are starting to see the divide between agriculture and nutrition begin to close. But it’s fair to say that our food system is broken. All the time, money and effort spent on trying to make it work still doesn’t make the food system deliver everyone an optimal diet. Today, up to 805 million people are hungry and 2 billion are malnourished — and 70 percent of them live in rural areas, with many rapidly moving to already swollen cities.

At the same time, 1.4 billion are overweight and obese, fuelled by Western-style diets that are damaging the planet and our health. Climate change is increasing food insecurity — particularly for rural populations which are most vulnerable to erratic weather patterns and unpredictable planting and harvest cycles. And despite many not having enough to eat, globally we throw away a staggering 1.3 billion tons of food each year.

Dietary diversity is among the key components of a healthy diet. In an ideal world everyone would have access to diverse diets, with a mix of fruits, vegetables and whole grains that provide the nutrients we need to live productive, healthy lives. That ideal, however, is still some way off.

Across the entire agricultural value chain there are opportunities to make food more nutritious at each stage. From seed choices and growing techniques to processing food and bringing products to market, innovations and individuals are making the food system work better. We are building the evidence base to better understand where nutrition is being woven into the agricultural chain, and how we can scale up these innovations.

But questions remain. How can we deliver better, more nutritious seed? Is there a better way of measuring impact? What do we need to do to enact the right policies to sustainably support agriculture and nutrition and keep this dialogue moving? With world leaders coming together at the second International Conference on Nutrition in Rome this month, we have a historic opportunity to advance the policies the nutrition community knows can work and to make our food system more responsive to human needs. 

The food system won’t self-correct. We need more ambition, more innovation and more leadership to create a food system that delivers affordable, healthy diets to everyone in the world. For the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, that amounts to a food system that generates demand for nutritious food across the value chain; increases agricultural yields as well as the nutritional quality of foods; and acts as an incubator for innovative ideas, while recognizing the importance of proven interventions that improve the nutritional value of food such as large-scale food fortification.

We need to support sustainable solutions, and open a dialogue on what an optimal diet looks like. We must encourage the development of a global food system that leapfrogs bad diets so that we solve malnutrition without inadvertently exporting an obesity crisis. In Africa, the huge investment in cellphone technology has put a mobile phone in every household, leapfrogging landlines. We need to ask whether it is possible to do the same for a nutritious food system.

It’s only by coming together to focus on the obstacles and opportunities that we will succeed in building a better food system. Conflict, humanitarian crises and climate change will take their toll on the most malnourished and exacerbate nutrition and food security challenges over the long term.

ICN2 is a critical opportunity to develop a sustainable food system that delivers healthy, nutritious, affordable food to those that need it most. If we are to become the generation that ends malnutrition nothing short of a new food system paradigm will do.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

About the author

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Marc Van Ameringen

Marc Van Ameringen has served as the executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition since 2005. Under his leadership, GAIN has become a leading player globally in efforts to end hunger and malnutrition. Prior to joining GAIN, Marc was the vice president of the Micronutrient Initiative. From 1992 to 2002, as director of the International Development Research Centre, Marc supported efforts to build a nonracial South Africa and managed programs across Africa.


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