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Our food system has to contribute to human health and wellbeing rather than causing disease and premature deaths
For the past five years, an unusual gathering of thought-leaders and experts from the realms of science, policy, business and civil society has taken place in Stockholm to tackle the interconnected challenges of food, health and sustainability. This June, the Government of Sweden is for the first time co-hosting the EAT Food Forum in Stockholm.
On the menu are critical conversations about today’s broken food system, but also as important, the unprecedented opportunity that lies before us to improve the health, nutrition and long-term human and natural capital of both people and planet.
By investing in better nutrition for all, we can improve the lives of the approximately 3 billion people - 1 in 3 people on the planet - who are currently eating too little, too much or the wrong types of food. Unhealthy diets have become a leading risk factor for disease globally and the main driver of the epidemic of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Two-thirds of the world’s overweight and obese people now live in developing countries, due to the transition towards diets heavy in meat and processed foods. At the same time, undernutrition - especially in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life - leads to stunting in early childhood, which holds back optimal growth and development of more than one-third of children in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Investing in early childhood nutrition yields enormous returns—allowing children to develop and reach their full educational and economic potential, reducing health costs, and boosting countries’ human capital and future growth prospects.
Countries all over the world are proving that it is possible to make real change. Peru made fighting chronic malnutrition everyone's business and took long-lasting policy decisions for health and social services. As a result, the country halved its stunting rates in just eight years. Senegal achieved similar declines in child stunting over less than a decade, and Rwanda has committed to do the same.
In the Pacific island of Samoa, where it is possible to grow fruit and vegetables year-round, imported ultra-processed foods have led to poor diets and skyrocketing rates of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other non-communicable diseases, putting immense pressure on the healthcare system and posing long-term risks to the economy. The country is linking agriculture and health outcomes to turn the situation around by increasing the production, competitiveness and local supply of fruits and vegetables and boosting demand for fresh, local produce, starting with school-aged children.
Meanwhile, how we grow, process, transport, consume and waste food is driving our global environmental crises. The agricultural sector is the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and a major contributor to species extinction, and the depletion of both marine ecosystems and fresh water resources. More than 70 percent of deforestation in tropical and subtropical countries is driven by agriculture.
Farmers are beginning to adopt more sustainable and resilient farming techniques. The restoration of agricultural landscapes, trees on farms, and climate-smart technologies that build soil carbon or reduce emissions from rice and livestock, for example, provide a practical set of solutions. While funding for these types of initiatives has been lagging, the decision to include agriculture in climate talks at COP23 opens the prospect for carbon payments rewarding climate solutions in agriculture.
This year’s EAT forum will include a session on changing the discourse around climate and food systems, to make sure agriculture solutions are fully recognised in future climate agreements.
CUTTING WASTE AND POVERTY
We also need to see more action on food loss and waste: about one-third of all food fit for human consumption — approximately 1.3 billion tons —is either lost in the supply chain or wasted at the consumer level. That’s enough to feed the world’s hungry four times over. Increasingly, innovations like social supermarkets, which sell surplus food from food retailers at a significant discount, can be found in cities across the world, from Copenhagen to Toronto, and are a chance to address food waste and poverty simultaneously.
Finally, we have an historic chance to make poverty history. About 80 percent of the extreme poor live in rural areas and depend largely on farming for their livelihoods. They rely heavily on agricultural value chains comprised of farmers, input suppliers, processors, traders, distributors, and marketers. Creating a favorable legal and regulatory environment for small and medium agribusinesses and strengthening partnerships between smallholder farmers, buyers and consumers can increase incomes and create more and better jobs all along the value chain.
Our food system has to contribute to human health and wellbeing rather than causing disease and premature deaths. And if we fail to turn the tide on climate change, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of drinking water, global food production will be fundamentally threatened. Sustainable food production, healthy consumption, and the fight against poverty and climate change are matters of life and death for all of us.
The interlinkages between these threats make them incredibly urgent – but also provide opportunities for action. A core premise of the Sustainable Development Goals is that we will never achieve the future we want by working in siloes. Together, we can turn food into a powerful link between planetary and human health, providing a brighter future for all.
Isabella Lövin is Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate, and Deputy Prime Minister.
Kristalina Georgieva is the Chief Executive Officer of the World Bank.
Gunhild A. Stordalen is the founder and president of the EAT Foundation.
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