Improving diets for human and planetary health

Strong evidence is emerging on synergies between health and environment and, as noted in earlier newsletters, UNSCN has been conveying this message at several UN intergovernmental meetings outside Rome, including the UN Environmental Assembly and the World Health Assembly (WHA).

At the 72nd World Health Assembly, held on 20‒28 May 2019 in Geneva, several sessions related to nutrition and diet, with a focus on non-communicable diseases and particular emphasis on healthy environments and climate change. Member States agreed on a new global strategy on health, environment and climate change: the transformation needed to improve lives and well-being sustainably through healthy environments. The strategy provides a vision and way forward on how the world and its health community need to respond to environmental health risks and challenges by 2030. They also agreed to a plan of action on climate change and health in small island developing states in the African and South East Asian regions. The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, launched the REPLACE Annual Report ‘Countdown to 2023: WHO report on global trans-fat elimination 2019’, and Modules of the REPLACE action package that provides a strategic approach to eliminating industrially-produced trans-fat from national food supplies, with the goal of global elimination by 2023. Moreover, the WHA noted the report Outcomes of the Second International Conference on Nutrition which outlines progress made in the implementation of the Rome Declaration commitments, with conclusions for the way forward and the mid-term review of the Nutrition Decade.

Beyond the plenary walls, the Nutrition4Health: Nutrition Innovations Along With NCDs Prevention for Achieving Universal Health Coverage Within the Context of the 2030 Agenda and the UN Nutrition Decade side event discussed the links between human and planetary health and nutrition. UNSCN highlighted the fact that contemporary diets that are high in calories, salt, sugar and animal-based foods and low in micronutrients and fibres are risk factors for the onset of NCDs. In addition, these diets are the outcome of unsustainable food production and thus fail both people and the planet.

However, the opportunity to change this situation has never been greater: the outcomes of the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition 2016‒2025 and the SDGs have increased the visibility of nutrition action and pushed for more coordination and collaboration towards sustainable food systems, so as to ensure food and nutrition security for all. The UNSCN Coordinator cited the Nordic and Mediterranean diets as examples of national and regional diets that have the potential to change things for the better.

The South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI) organized a round-table on High-impact and Under-represented Nutrition-Sensitive Food Systems in South Asia on 17‒18 June in Bangkok. More than 120 government officials, civil-society organizations, private-sector representatives, international donors, practitioners and stakeholders from South Asia and beyond debated the role of nutrition-sensitive food systems in improving diets, with a particular emphasis on the role of under-represented and high-impact crops, including indigenous products and small-scale fish species.

Consumption of high-impact and under-represented foods, such as small-sized fish (for more, please see the CFS45 side event on Improving Food Security & Nutrition Through Innovative Fish-Based Agri-Food Solutions), algae and new and old heritage crops, such as millet and legumes, should be encouraged, as they are often more nutritious but consumed less than dominant crops, such as wheat, maize and rice. In addition, they may contribute to more agro-biodiversity and are often more appropriate to local agroecological contexts.

Five key lessons sum up the outcome of the round-table meeting: (1) provide affordable, safe, healthy, nutritious and culturally enjoyable food choices for all, (2) ensure no one is left behind, (3) the plate is the target, (4) disrupt the food system and (5) work together.

On 1-3 July 2019, FAO and WHO convened an International Consultation on Sustainable and Healthy Diets which was attended by 24 internationally renowned experts, representing the different FAO/WHO regions, in addition to FAO and WHO technical officers. The objective of the Consultation was to develop guiding principles around what constitutes a sustainable and healthy diet. The idea is to further translate these principles into clear, non-technical information that can be used by governments and other actors in communication and policy-making.

Five background papers were commissioned for the Consultation and reviewed the concept of healthy diet and the evidence about economic, cultural and environmental sustainability of diets. The Consultation agreed on a new term to be used, i.e. Sustainable Healthy Diet (SHD) and developed guiding principles that describe the characteristics of SHD. These guiding principles will be shared with the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) through the e-consultation on the development of the CFS Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition, and will guide action in the Nutrition Decade and the achievement of the SDGs. The proceedings of the Consultation will be published by the end of 2019.


Photo credit: @FAO/Manan Vatsyayana

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