Healthy Food Systems at SCN Side Event at CFS Meeting

Since Rome is the Eternal City, nothing ever really changes, and some of the speeches at the recent meeting of the Committee on Food Security (CFS) held at the FAO in Rome sounded like they were from a different era. But when you listened closely, it became apparent that everything has changed.

This post-ICN2 year, the CFS has a new outlook on life. Its outlook now includes malnutrition “in all its forms,” and the role of climate change on food security. This is a big step for CFS. It means that first, there will begin to be a broader discussion of malnutrition, encompassing the 795 million people that remain food insecure, along with the 1.9 billion people that are overweight or obese. Indeed, many of the delegations to CFS addressed the crisis of overweight and obesity in their remarks (including a nice intervention from US delegate Jennifer Chow that called for attention to unhealthy food subsidies), pointing out that those problems are no less threatening to people’s health and well-being than the long-time focus on under-nutrition at CFS. Second, it strengthens the link to sustainable agriculture and the environment, providing the platform for CFS to contribute more to “Climate-Smart Agriculture” and sustainable food systems.

I had the opportunity to present preliminary work at a side event sponsored by the U.N. Standing Committee on Nutrition, another important inter-agency group. Its mandate is to harmonize work on food and nutrition policy, and provide a forum for discussion across the UN system. Ably led by Francesco Branca, the SCN is trying to steer the UN system to implement nutrition-related actions from the 2014 ICN2. Among those actions are investments that improve diets and nutrition (Recommendation 17 of Commitment 15b). I am developing an evidence-based list of what those actions could be, and which ones are fit-for-purpose in different types of food systems. The side event was held to learn how countries with a wide range of food systems (see Chapter 7 of the new Global Nutrition Report for details) have done this.

The Iran Room at the FAO was full of CFS delegates, along with stray FAO staff and civil society representatives. After my brief introduction on what investments support healthier outcomes from food systems, and what can be done with different types of food systems, representatives from Brazil (food system type 3, transitioning) and Germany (food system type 2, mixed) pointed toward specific examples that work in their countries. Brazil’s National Secretary for Food and Nutrition Security, Arnoldo de Campos, pointed to production of fruits and vegetables and locally-sourced foods in schools as the means to achieve higher consumption of healthy food. He said Brazil is seeing a decline in diabetes and other nutrition-related chronic diseases.  Dr. Klaus Heider, the director general of the Nutrition Policy, Product Safety, and Innovation directorate in Germany’s agriculture ministry spoke about standards for school meals, daily nutrition education in schools, product reformulation to reduce salt, sugars, and oils in manufactured foods, and behavior change incentives to improve diet and physical activity. In spite of the obvious attention to these issues, especially driven by high rates of overweight in children, Dr. Heider stated, “we are not at the beginning, but still far from the end of these activities for a healthy food system.”

The moderator of the session, FAO Assistant Director General Jomo Sundaram, acknowledged the importance of nutrition and the knowledge and expertise of the experts at the table, but wondered at the same time how non-nutritionists, such as for example economists, could be made to understand about the much-needed attention for nutrition. Stineke Oenema, a member of the International Expert Group along with me, reminded the audience that the Global Nutrition Report 2015 reported a return on investments in nutrition of 1:16, i.e.  1 dollar spent gives a return of 16 dollars. Not bad at all! So there are strong economic arguments to pay serious attention to nutrition even beyond the nutrition community.

The Global Nutrition Report exactly tries to do that: reach beyond the nutrition community. In the 2015 edition of the Report there are chapters about the relationships between climate and nutrition, including the impact of dietary choices on climate and vice versa.  In addition there is the analysis of food system typologies and their impact on both nutrition and the environment (including climate) which feeds into the work on healthy investments presented at the SCN side meeting. Now that the CFS has embraced nutrition on its agenda it is expected to continue to explore the linkages between nutrition and food systems and climate. As a follow up of the ICN2, but also as part of its own mandate: to ensure policy coherence and coordination in the area of food security and nutrition.

With the move of SCN to FAO, and the rise of nutrition and food systems in the CFS agenda, Rome will now be the house for policy debates about the place of nutrition in food security, food systems, climate and other nutrition related issues. And considering the dynamic and intersectoral nature of nutrition, the somewhat sterile FAO corridors will reflect the lively dynamics of the politics and policies debated in the CFS.

Rachel Nugent and Stineke Oenema are members of the Global Nutrition Report Independent Expert Group.