Why do we need a 2nd International Conference on Nutrition and Growth?


The second International Conference on Nutrition and Growth will be held from 19-21 November in Rome. Jointly organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), it will particularly focus on undernutrition, health problems due to malnutrition or food safety issues, and the depletion of natural resources. These are “today’s major nutrition challenges”: here’s why.


In 1992, the first International Conference on Nutrition was dedicated to nutrition problems in developing countries. Since then, new global issues related to food and nutrition have emerged, such as spreading obesity, in a context where undernutrition still strikes in many parts of the world. Today, “more than half the world’s population is adversely affected by malnutrition,” the FAO notes. In parallel, environmental concerns have risen, as awareness on the limits of our planet has grown among the general public. And during the initial decades of the 21st century we are faced with quite a challenge: by 2050, there will be 9 billion humans inhabiting the planet. Twelve years after the first Conference, the 2014 edition aims to provide political solutions, at intergovernmental scale, to sustainably feed these 9 billion individuals.

Fighting the “double burden of malnutrition

Fighting hunger is one of the world’s main challenges, as identified by the United Nations: it is the first of the UN Millennium Development Goals (to eradicate poverty and hunger) and it is being tackled by the UN’s “Zero Hunger Challenge”. In 2013, the FAO counted 867m chronically undernourished people in the world. One third of children (nearly 147m) in developing countries are underweight and stunted. When they do get food, most of the time it does not contain enough micronutrients, vitamins and minerals: more than one third of preschool-age children globally are vitamin A deficient, according to the WHO. These deficiencies facilitate disease and can provoke sub-optimal intellectual development. Undernutrition hinders education.

But it is not a fatality: it is generally acknowledged that there is enough food to feed everybody on earth but that production is unequally distributed. Most Northern countries cultivate intensively to feed their populations but also to export food to the South (read our interview with French geographer Sylvie Brunel on that topic). This creates unsustainable competition for smallholders in those countries and reinforces poverty. It can also provoke artificial nutritional transitions when food that does not match a country’s dietary customs is massively exported.

Nutritional transition occurs when lower birth rates, lower mortality and less infectious diseases combine with a higher proportion of fat in food due to higher standards of living. But there is a downside to nutritional transition when it is not properly managed by public policies encouraging healthy diets: people go from underweight to overweight, and are still struck by the “double burden of malnutrition.” New consumption habits (diets richer in fats, sugar and salt) and new living conditions (urbanisation and reduced physical activity) can result in lower calorie expenditures and more widespread obesity. For instance, the WHO estimates that 16% of Vietnamese males will be overweight in 2015, up from just 5% in 2005. Today, once again according to the WHO, 1.5bn people are overweight worldwide, and developing countries are increasingly faced with this new health issue. Obesity and overweight can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and cancer. They are linked to more deaths worldwide than underweight. (To follow up this topic, you can read our articles on obesity). Hunger is definitely not the only food-related issue that humanity needs to solve.

Encouraging sustainable land management

Another key challenge identified by the WHO and the FAO is the depletion of natural resources caused by intensive agriculture. How can we feed more people while impacting the environment less? Is there even a solution to the equation?

It is now recognised that intensive agriculture damages soils through the use of phytosanitary products and synthetic fertilisers. In addition, toxic residues pollute air and food: about 50% of intensively produced fruit and vegetables are affected, which poses health threats. Furthermore, the biggest producers destroy forests to create arable land. For instance, 4.2m hectares of forests are destroyed by agriculture and urbanisation each year in South America. It has been proved that large machines mash up crops, so water cannot circulate properly and the land is no longer fertile. If nothing changes, by 2050 between 15 and 37% of biodiversity could disappear, according to Planetoscope.com.

The paradox is that, when it comes to consumption habits, human diets are becoming less varied: mankind essentially feeds on animal proteins (meat, fish, eggs and milk), vegetables and cereals whereas the FAO has identified 3,189 types of foods that can be taken into account as nutritional indicators of biodiversity.

The rise of meat consumption, everywhere in the world, is perhaps the most problematic trend: in 2013, 308.2m tons of meat were produced. Meat production is one of the most harmful agricultural activities: it serves international industries at the expense of smallholders; agriculture consumes 70% of the fresh water available on Earth, and one third of it is dedicated to livestock. An excessively large animal population eats food that could go to humans, occupies too much land and emits greenhouse gases. “The production of crops and animal products today releases roughly 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, or about 6.5 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year, without counting land use change. Even assuming some increases in the carbon efficiency of agriculture, emissions could plausibly grow to 9.5 Gt of CO2e by 2050,” says the World Resources Institute’s Creating a Sustainable Food Future report.

Land management is therefore a major challenge for the coming years. Solutions are sought with the development of agricultural systems that are less demanding for the environment, while ensuring good productivity. One example is agroecology (which the French Ministry of Agriculture wants to make the production mode of the future), a whole-system approach based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture and local food system experiments. On down to Earth, we have examined whether organic farming could feed the world: Indian doctor Vandana Shiva defends it, while American professor of political sciences Robert Paarlberg questions its merits. Still, according to French agronomist Jacques Caplat, “organic farming achieves a better yield per hectare than conventional agriculture, on 75% of the planet.” What is certain is that sustainable farming, based on integrated farming, recycling, local biodiversity, microbiology, soil restoration techniques, biodynamic farming or agroforestry and the empowerment of small farmers, needs to be promoted.

Overhauling global food governance

“We will not likely be able to stabilise population unless we eradicate poverty. We will not likely be able to restore the Earth’s natural systems without stabilising population and stabilising climate. Nor can we eradicate poverty without reversing the decline of the Earth’s natural systems,”

writes American agro-economist Lester Brown. Nutrition, health, education and environment are closely interdependent. And we will need strong international food governance to tackle these issues better.

The FAO, created in 1945, was one of the first global initiatives to install food governance. Its motto is “Fiat panis,” a Latin expression meaning “bread for all.” Since then, new actors have emerged and today more than ever, food management requires the commitment of all links in the food chain such as NGOs, national governments, local communities, companies, farmers and consumers. The private sector can represent a useful link between all of these parties, through social business innovation platforms such as the Danone Ecosysteme Fund, for instance.

The role of the second International Conference on Nutrition will be to bring all these players together around the same table, to work for food not to be a matter of survival any more, but a healthy pleasure for all. They will aim to close the food gap by shaping consumption methods, by optimising existing agricultural lands and by promoting smart and local farming models. This is a challenge for the whole planet, both in the developed and the developing world. The Conference will be a first step towards showing whether mankind can rise to it.

Photo ©  Kletr via shutterstock

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