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Why now is the moment to invest in nutrition to transform our food systems

  |   SUN Lead Group and Secretariat

This blog was originally published by IFPRI here as one in a series of guest blog posts from leading voices in global development on achieving long-term sustainability and growth while ending hunger, poverty, and malnutrition.


Nutrition is the smart and necessary investment if we are to transform our food systems for the well-being of people and planet. Everyone is responsible for making this happen. Let’s make change happen, now.

This is the nutrition message that everyone who participated in this year’s EAT Food Forum June 11-14 should keep in mind: How can I lead from where I stand to contribute to dietary shifts, sustainable eating, and food systems transformation?

In my role as UN Assistant Secretary General and Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement I visit many countries to bring attention to critical nutrition and health challenges at the national and global level. The 61 countries and four Indian states that make up the SUN Movement face multiple, potentially overwhelming challenges as they strive to deliver nutritious, affordable and accessible food. Continued population growth and climate change only serve to place many of these countries under increasing stress.

Today, 88 per cent of countries worldwide face a serious burden of either two or three forms of malnutrition, while almost half of SUN countries are facing a “multiple burden” of malnutrition. Insufficient and unhealthy diets underpin the persistent high rates of stunting, wasting, and micronutrient deficiencies, and the alarming increase in overweight, obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health report launched earlier this year provides a nuanced and solid basis from which to address some of these most pressing issues. It provides an urgent call for change on a global scale while also providing an outline for action at the country level.

During my recent visit to Costa Rica, I saw firsthand how the EAT-Lancet recommendations can be adopted to drive country-owned and country-led change in the food system. I saw that with political will, change can happen—quickly and efficiently and with the right multi-sectoral approach it is indeed possible to “nourish the world in a sustainable way for the planet.” During my visit, I sampled locally-produced foods such as chorreadas, gallo pinto, and ceviche while touring the Central Market of San José and saw firsthand how entrepreneurs and civil society are working towards a more inclusive, sustainable, and healthy food system that preserves the culinary traditions and the diversity of the Costa Rican diet.

In Costa Rica, a SUN Movement country since 2014, the government has embraced an approach to nourish its people while caring for the environment. Along with civil society and private sector support, the government is building a food systems narrative centered on health, community, and diversity, stressing that the food system (production, preparation, and consumption) can effect positive change for people and community. The government has committed to addressing overweight and obesity problems in children and young people through a results-oriented multi-sector partnership approach which brings together social actors from health, education, agriculture, social protection, environment, culture, tourism, investment, sport—and many others.

Costa Rica’s example illustrates how, at all levels of government (local, regional, and national) it is critical to think about the entire food value chain and to shift towards a paradigm where agricultural production is not seen as just contributing to the economy, but also to the health of people and the planet. The complexity of today’s food production systems means that everyone is involved—from the private sector to small scale farmers, to roadside sellers, food producers, consumers, and government. They all have a role to play: The public sector can create an enabling environment and generate incentives for supplying and consuming healthy diets. Civil society and informed consumers can help drive demand for, and supply of, healthy diets, and the business sector must act and invest responsibility to improve nutrition.

At the global level, SUN Movement members including IFPRI are calling on all of us to seize this food systems momentum. The new IFPRI-CABI book Agriculture for Improved Nutrition: Seizing the Momentum emphasizes that we are only just beginning to tap agriculture’s vast potential to improve nutrition. I couldn’t agree more—let’s expand our vision on how agriculture can deliver better nutrition for all. Similarly, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has identified 10 key ways to improve nutrition through agriculture and food systems, which invite us to broaden the conversation from food security to nutrition in the context of food systems. By investing in nutrition and ensuring it is central to agricultural production, we will transform our food systems.

When we work towards delivery of a nutrition-sensitive sustainable food system, we are compelled to ensure access to, and consumption of, a healthy diet while also mobilizing all our tools to fight other causes of malnutrition (e.g., pushing for universal health coverage, access to safe water).

SUN countries, under the leadership of their governments, can drive this paradigm shift. With political will and leadership, they can move from the traditional sector-driven approach to nutrition and food security to a stronger multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approach embracing all components of food systems and enhancing their capacity to deliver healthy diets to all. The end goal is to protect people and planet, alike. In this regard, the SUN Movement is ensuring that food systems will become part of our DNA. Transformational change will be delivered through accountable, organized, committed players who are willing to act jointly and focused on results.

My call to action

My message is twofold: Nutrition is the smart investment because good nutrition is. And that now is the time for change and for bold, ambitious action. Nutrition is a cornerstone issue which must be comprehensively integrated across all sectors if we are to deliver on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is the responsibility of governments, working together with civil society, the business sector, academia, donors, and the UN system to ensure this happens.

So, I invite everyone to ask yourself this question: How can I contribute from where I stand? What can I do through my organization, in my country, community, or family to improve nutrition?

I for one will continue to promote the SUN Movement approach—supporting countries to take a multi-sector and multi-stakeholder approach to create structural and sustainable nutrition change. I will encourage decision makers to invest in people. Investing in nutrition is a smart economic investment because of its return on investment: better health, education, productivity and income, stability, and a prosperous future for all.

Gerda Verburg is UN Assistant Secretary General and Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement.

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