What to watch out for at ICN2

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, FAO assistant director-general and coordinator for economic and social development. Photo by: FAO

The second International Conference on Nutrition — better known as ICN2 — kicks off Wednesday in Rome with delegates poised to galvanize progress on fighting global hunger.

A full 22 years after the first edition back in 1992 and jointly organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, ICN2 has been a hot topic for food security and nutrition development professionals for a long time, and now the time has finally come for member states to endorse a political document and a framework for action, both agreed upon following tough negotiations in October and amid rumors of imminent plans to establish a new U.N. body to tackle malnutrition.

What are the expectations? How can ICN2 help contribute innovative solutions for addressing malnutrition? What have been the major challenges in reaching a consensus on the outcome documents? What’s next on the agenda?

In an exclusive interview ahead of the conference, we sat down with prominent economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, FAO assistant director-general and coordinator for economic and social development.

New ways to tackle perennial challenges

Undernourishment or hunger (not having enough dietary energy), undernutrition or hidden hunger (micronutrient deficiencies like insufficient key vitamins or minerals) and dietary-related noncommunicable diseases are the three major challenges in the fight against malnutrition, according to Jomo, who suggested four innovative ways that ICN2 will help to address the problems.

1. Emphasis on food systems. Supplements are very important, especially in emergency situations, but the WHO official stressed that the ICN2 should focus on food systems. Organizations like FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development — which are concerned with food production — or the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, which looks at food processing, “can [all] make a special contribution.”

2. Integration. Health ministers, Jomo said, “have to understand and appreciate why food systems are important,” and involve other ministries to fight malnutrition through a whole-of-government approach.  

3. Social protection. Given the global economic downturn, the FAO official admitted it’s unlikely we will be able to overcome hunger and poverty unless we have some major social protection measures. Here he mentioned the examples of school feeding programs in Brazil and China as having an impact on the nutrition of an entire community and have educational, organizational and social implications.

In Brazil, the food surplus produced for its school meals program increased the overall quality of food sold on the market. “The whole community improves its diet partly because of the changes in the supply of food [due to] the requirements of the school feeding program,” Jomo said.  

The Chinese case meanwhile represented an incentive for children to go to school while improving nutrition with a balanced diet, but it also had implications for farmers. “No single farmer can produce enough for the school feeding program. [They] have to cooperate [in] farmer organizations or cooperatives,” Jomo explained.

4. Nutritional education. This is one the key trends that FAO is emphasizing and to which ICN2 could contribute, according to Jomo. One medium being considered is culinary TV programs and series and getting chefs involved in promoting good eating habits.

Private sector engagement, outcome documents

One of the hot topics this week in Rome will be the role of the private sector.

Jomo said private corporations could be instrumental in addressing some malnutrition challenges, as seen recently when eradicating an aflatoxin epidemic in West African peanuts by buying stock from farmers right after the harvest and keeping it in safe warehouses, as well as through better data collection.

Nevertheless, some stakeholders at the ICN2 worry that a push for more public-private partnerships may harm smallholder farmers or the environment. In the case of FAO, the member states have the final say and the organization must abide by that majority decision.

“I am the vice chair of one of the committees here and I have rejected proposals I have considered of dubious value,” Jomo said. “I know there was a lot of pressure on me [and] on my colleagues about my rejection … That’s why you have to have organizations where people are there and have integrity.”

“They are real problems … and it is true that within the U.N., right now, precisely this kind of conflict is taking place. There are some people who want partnerships at all costs and some people who say ‘no partnership at all.’ This is an ongoing struggle,” Jomo said.

Finally, many hope the outcome documents from the conference will pave the way for translating strategies into concrete and implementable actions to achieve much more progress than has been made since the first gathering in 1992.

That will be difficult, though, because both the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and the ICN2 Framework for Action are not binding and don’t include concrete commitments, time frames or allocate resources to implement any intervention.

“Of course, every compromise is almost like a lowest common denominator,” Jomo said. “The question is if we can either complain that the glass is half empty … or we can try to work with the glass that is half full to try to slowly ensure it is filled up.”  

What remains to be seen is whether the ICN2 process and the outcome documents will have the capacity to channel resources into nutritional programs on the ground, which Jomo is more optimistic about now than before the outcome documents were agreed upon in October.

Elena L. Pasquini contributed reporting from Rome.

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