Public Health Researchers Examine Impact of Evolving Food Systems, Access to Nutritious Diets on Human Well‑Being, as Population and Development Commission Continues Session
Public health researchers examined links between the planet’s rapidly evolving food systems, emerging social trends and access to healthy, nutritious human diets, as the Economic and Social Council’s Commission on Population and Development continued into the third day of its annual session.
The Commission began the day with a multi-stakeholder panel discussion on the overarching theme of its fifty-fourth session, “Population, food security, nutrition and sustainable development”. Describing access to healthy foods and essential micronutrients as critical to human development — especially in childhood and adolescence — panellists explored the many factors that influence healthy dietary decision-making, including wealth and poverty, trade patterns, globalization and now the impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Many also spotlighted the disproportionate impact those phenomena have on girls and women, who have specific nutritional needs, and who often face more difficult trade-offs to support their families.
Moderator Milka Sokolović, Director General of the European Public Health Alliance, said food systems are meant to ensure nutrition for all people while also providing opportunities for decent work. After declining for many years, she said, hunger is on the rise again, while both malnutrition and obesity are rampant around the globe. “We should, however, not be disheartened,” she said, noting that research indicates that feeding more people while staying within planetary boundaries is indeed possible. Underlining the need to create enabling food environments, she said public health research — including the work of today’s expert panellists — offers many insights that can help meet those goals.
Jane Napais Lankisa, Nutritionist at Feed the Children Kenya and Youth Leader for the Scaling Up Nutrition programme, was asked to consider the links between health and education for adolescent girls, and prevention of child marriage and other harmful practices, through the lens of her work as a youth ambassador. Describing a synergistic relationship between all those issues, she noted that, around the world, many adolescent girls opt to drop out of school to help find or prepare meals for their families. Many communities also resort to marrying off adolescent girls as another coping strategy, she said, pointing out that bride prices are frequently paid in food products. In addition, adolescents married off with no education or expertise are often totally dependent on their spouses, rendering their households highly susceptible to food insecurity.
Inge D. Brouwer, Associate Professor in the Division of Human Nutrition and Health at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, was asked how the health and nutrition of adolescents and young women — including reproductive health — are linked with broader issues in global food systems. She responded that, after childhood, adolescence is a “second window of opportunity” to improve human health and socioeconomic trajectories. Noting that those trajectories are related to, and highly influenced by, global food systems, she said healthy diets play a central role in that window of opportunity. They should include enough fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes; sufficient but not excessive calories and amounts of starchy staples and animal-sourced foods; and very limited quantities of risky foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages and ultra-processed foods.
Outlining her own research among adolescents in urban settings, she said food affordability and safety in such areas often drive adolescents to prefer cheaper, packaged, highly processed foods. In addition, many adolescents and young women often financially rely on informal, low-paid, insecure employment in the food sector, which has been particularly vulnerable to job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Luz Maria De-Regil, Unit Head for Multisectoral Action in Food Systems at the World Health Organization (WHO), was asked to consider changes in global food environments that have either stood in the way of, or facilitated, the adoption of healthy dietary patterns. Responding, she said the term “food environments” refers to the physical, economic, political and sociocultural contexts in which consumers engage with the food system to make their dietary decisions. Urbanization, digitalization, globalization, trade liberalization and now COVID-19 lockdowns are all examples of trends that affect the way people of all ages access food.
Noting that rapid rates of urbanization have resulted in more “work-away” and “eat-away-from-home” habits — with a direct impact on the demand for easy‑to‑prepare, highly processed foods or convenience foods — she said digitalization provides access to fast food with a few clicks of a mouse. While globalization and trade liberalization have increased access to food from all over the world, some of which is cheap and non-nutritious, it has also helped many countries boost food access as well as dietary diversity.
Emorn Udomkesmalee, Senior Researcher in the Institute of Nutrition at Mahidol University in Thailand, was asked to discuss obstacles in the arenas of maternal and child nutrition, including those that existed before COVID-19 and those that have been exacerbated by it. Stressing that maternal and child nutrition holds the key to life-long health, cognitive development and the productivity of human capital, she said that, prior to the pandemic, slow progress was observed in improving maternal and child nutrition in many low- and middle‑income countries. That complex challenge requires multi-sectoral action at scale, that links food, health, water, sanitation, hygiene, education and social protection.
To that end, she said, countries should address data gaps and outdated data on micronutrient deficiencies in women and children, as well as on the quality and coverage of their health services and the cost-effectiveness of direct and indirect nutrition interventions. Moreover, “implementation know-how” is needed to inform policy and programmatic decisions, she stressed, adding that COVID-19 has disrupted many key elements of food systems and worsened conditions for women and children.
Rami Zurayk of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, was asked which conflict, climate or humanitarian emergency hotspots around the globe are causing the most severe insecurity and require the world’s urgent attention. He responded by drawing attention to the World Bank’s list of fragile and conflict-affected situations, pointing out that 8 of those 30 countries are in the Middle East and North Africa region, including Afghanistan.
Noting that the vast majority of those hotspots are in the planet’s drylands, he said that geographic intersection has major implications for local agricultural production and exacerbates the impacts of climate change. He listed several situations of particular concern, including conflicts and conditions in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Venezuela, Somalia, Libya and Africa’s Sahel region. He also referred to the conflicts between Iran and the United States and the Russian Federation and Turkey in Syria, as well as the implications of climate change in many arid regions, as sources of concern.
The panellists also responded to additional questions on issues ranging from ways to engage youth in designing effective food policies to best practices in balancing agricultural production and environmental considerations, as the world ramps up to feed an estimated 10 billion people by 2050.
As the floor was opened for questions and comments, many delegates raised concerns about less-than-ideal data collection on the nutritional challenges facing women and children around the globe. Several cited the need to create healthy diets from more sustainable global food systems, which requires an urgent reduction of food loss and waste. Some speakers also posed questions to the panellists, pressing for more details about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health of women and girls, as well as on their empowerment and agency over their own lives.
The representative of the Philippines underlined the need for a whole‑of‑Government approach, as well as multisectoral action to improve urgent challenges in food security and nutrition — especially those facing children. She outlined the Philippines’ targeted efforts to address both the supply- and demand‑side elements of those challenges, including strong social protection schemes and the implementation of social and behavioural change initiatives.
A representative of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women echoed the panellists’ assertion that women’s health and nutrition cannot be separated from their autonomy and human rights. In the Asia-Pacific region, adolescent girls and young women are more vulnerable to the negative health impacts of nutrition challenges and food system disruptions than other groups. She added that the health and rights of women farmers, including their access to land tenure rights, are also at stake in conversations about food policy.
Meanwhile, a representative of the Anglican Consultative Council echoed the panellists’ calls for a coalition of stakeholders, included faith-based organizations, to drive the many food system changes that are urgently required. She also drew attention to the particular vulnerability of low-lying small island developing States, which are at increased risk of food insecurity amid the climate crisis. Rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns often make agriculture more difficult and leave those island communities more dependent on less‑nutritious, imported food products, she said.
Also participating in the interactive discussion were the representatives of Luxembourg, Morocco and Japan.
The Commission will reconvene to hold another virtual panel discussion at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 22 April.
Following the conclusion of the morning panel, the Commission continued its general discussion. Throughout the day, speakers highlighted the need to pursue multidisciplinary initiatives that recognize human rights, equality and empowerment of vulnerable communities, as clear pathways towards implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Several speakers emphasized the need to direct resources towards social services that build human capital and provide people — including the global youth — with the tools to build healthy, resilient lives.
LANG YABOU (Gambia), associating himself with the African Group, said that, at 3.1 per cent growth annually, his country has one of the fastest-growing populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Women account for over 51 per cent of the population, while adolescents aged 15 to 24 and youth aged 15 to 35 account for 21.4 per cent and 38.5 per cent, respectively. Citing progress made in reducing poverty and improving living standards, he said poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition nevertheless remain challenges in the Gambia and have been exacerbated by major disease outbreaks and their impact on the tourism industry. Meanwhile, crop production in the country fell by 26 per cent in 2017 due to long dry spells, and fluctuating market prices for food items negatively impacted vulnerable households — who spend about half their income on food. He outlined the National Development Plan (2017-2022), as well as a range of strategies and programmes put in place to transform the agricultural sector from one of subsistence farming to one geared towards market-oriented commercial enterprises. Government offices including the National Nutrition Agency also are working to decrease undernutrition and stunting among the population, he said.
ABDUL SHUKUR ABDULLAH (Malaysia) said his country is now spending $8.33 billion on food imports to meet the needs of its growing population and that, while major foods are available in sufficient quantities to meet market demands, reliance on food imports is on the rise. As part of efforts to reduce reliance on imports, the Government is investing heavily in biotechnology to improve crop yield and increase its resistance to environmental stress. To promote nutritional well-being, he said Malaysia is implementing a national plan of action which underscores the importance of nutrition in enhancing health and preventing diet-related diseases. “Malaysia has made great strides in addressing the problems of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies,” he assured the Commission, also acknowledging the importance of continued efforts to address obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases.
The representative of Costa Rica said there is a clear link between economic growth and social progress, emphasizing that it is up to States to ensure the rights of all people are protected. All forms of inequality — including in relation to enjoying a safe and clean environment — hamper development initiatives. Noting that demand for food is rising quickly, he warned Member States that the world is heading towards the collapse of its global food systems. Climate disaster and pollution are among the most pressing threats to human health and food security, he said, stressing that food production systems were in a state of crisis before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is clear that family farmers and women farmers play a key role in the creation of food and jobs and in combating the climate disaster,” he said, adding that greater emphasis is needed to improve women’s access to land. “We must work hard to support management and preservation of natural resources to facilitate access to safe and nutritious food and allow for mitigation and adaptation to climate disasters,” he concluded.
Ms. FOGARASSY (Canada) welcomed the emergence of consensus on the topics addressed by the Commission which positively contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development Goals. “As we accelerate our efforts towards 2030, strong policies and programmes depend on everyone having a seat and a voice at the table to ensure that no one is left behind,” she stressed, urging Member States to pursue policies that value lived experiences and address the intersecting forms of injustices felt across the world. These inequalities are disproportionately felt by women and girls, she said, emphasizing the need to break down the barriers that impact their well‑being. Turning to the effects of the pandemic, she said that food insecurity — already impacted by climate change and gendered gaps in control over resources — has been exacerbated, reaffirming that health, nutrition and food security are preconditions for economic and social development.
ELISABETH MILLARD (United States) echoed the view that advancing human rights, equality and empowerment for women, and global health fundamentally contribute to sustainable development and peace. “Women and children are the most vulnerable to the consequences of malnutrition, as can be seen through the high rates of stunting and anaemia in these groups,” she warned the Commission, urging greater investment in programmes that benefit adolescent girls as a way to compensate for earlier inequalities. Washington, D.C., is prioritizing reproductive empowerment and bodily autonomy, she said, adding that global efforts must account for the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on women and girls. “Recognizing that women have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, as health‑care workers, caregivers and in securing food and resources for their families, we must also work to ensure that our recovery plans reflect women's roles as leaders and their unique needs,” she concluded.
MOUSTAPHA HININ, Director-General of the National Population Office of Côte d’Ivoire, associating himself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China and the African Group, outlined his country’s National Policy for Nutrition, Agricultural Investment Plan and other strategies in areas such as food production and herding. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19, development indicators in his country, which have risen in recent years, are at risk of falling backwards. He also described budgeted plans of action to implement the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo and to transition to more sustainable consumption methods, noting the need for additional support from international and regional organizations, as well as international financial instruments.
KELLY WHITE (United Kingdom) called on the international community to ensure women, girls, children and marginalized populations – all at higher risk of food insecurity and undernutrition — are prioritized in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. “We know that conflict, economic crises and climate change are driving food insecurity, and have been further exacerbated by COVID‑19,” she said, adding that it falls on the Commission to examine the pandemic’s impact on the fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health and rights, including access to safe abortion services. Looking to the future, she welcomed the much-needed focus the upcoming Food Systems Summit and twenty-sixth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will bring to the development of sustainable food systems and reversal of the current negative progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
LETICIA ADELAIDE APPIAH, Executive Director of the National Population Council of Ghana, associating herself with the African Group, said that, despite the fact that enough food exists for the global population, 1 in 7 people around the world are chronically hungry. She assured the Commission that food security and life‑long nutrition underpin human capital accumulation and are essential for overall well-being and at the core of achieving internationally agreed development goals. Efforts to achieve those goals have been severely hampered by the global pandemic, she stressed, adding that pandemic-related disruptions to the agricultural sector — which employs over 3 million people in Ghana — have had negative health impacts. To address these issues, she said Ghana has identified and implemented critical policy and investment changes that are transforming our current food systems, aimed at ensuring that everyone can afford healthy diets that include sustainability considerations.
MAJID TAKHT RAVANCHI (Iran) said the lack of nutritious food and health‑care systems devastated by COVID-19 will have severe, life-long developmental consequences for women, children and the world’s most vulnerable people. Under those difficult circumstances, unilateral coercive measures seriously jeopardize the food security and nutrition of ordinary people living in targeted countries, and hamper access to basic medical services. Medicine, medical supplies and health commodities have also been targeted, through tight restrictions of foreign exchange resources, violating the people’s right to health and life. As the representative of one country targeted by such brutal measures, he called for their full and immediate lifting, describing a range of concrete social support measures Iran has managed to implement even under pressure from illegal sanctions.
PETER MOHAN MAITHRI PIERIS (Sri Lanka) said the environment is bearing a heavy toll as populations grow, driving demand for natural resources. To reduce the risks posed by a volatile climate, Sri Lanka is implementing a development policy framework aimed at fostering a productive citizenry, creating happy and resilient families and building a prosperous nation, he said, citing new investments in the country’s universal health‑care system. Through such interventions, Sri Lanka has achieved one of the highest life expectancies — 77 years — in the region. Maternal and infant mortality rates are decreasing, and laws are in place to ensure gender parity in the workforce and to provide good opportunities for the nation’s youth. Noting that rising poverty continues to underpin global development challenges, he called for stronger partnerships to ensure food security and improved nutrition.
KITTY SWEEB (Suriname) described her Government’s Development Plan (2022‑2027), whose planning was interrupted by COVID-19. Noting that the country was already facing financial difficulties prior to the pandemic — with high sovereign debt, diminished currency values and rising prices for imported goods such as food — she said the pandemic has worsened those conditions. While the Government is working to overcome those challenges, it is unlikely to be able to do so in the short term, due to constrained funds and limited natural resources. Education has also been negatively affected, tourism has decreased and domestic violence is rising. Meanwhile, she said, challenges in agriculture and drops in exports are threatening the country’s food supply, both in terms of local production and imports.
AKSOLTAN ATAEVA (Turkmenistan) recalled her country’s attendance at both the Cairo and Nairobi summits, as well as its many commitments to the Programme of Action and the significant progress achieved over the years. Among those strides, she cited its National Plan for Gender Equality, improvements in evidence-based policymaking and investments in young people’s education and health — including sexual and reproductive health and rights.
FABIÁN ODDONE (Argentina) said his country’s development model incorporates both economic growth and social inclusion, and the Government is therefore committed to inclusion and gender equality. Noting that it has enacted policies supporting the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls, he said the right to end a pregnancy in the first three months is now protected under the law. Marriage equality is also protected, and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited. “We must not lose sight of the fact that hunger and malnutrition continue to be some of the main challenges we are facing, and that is even more true during the pandemic,” he stressed, citing evidence that considerable setbacks loom in global hunger and malnutrition rates. To address those challenges at home, Argentina is supporting small-scale farming and strengthening its food systems more broadly, and it supports a reformed multilateral trading system based on rules that are open, non-discriminatory and fair, with the World Trade Organization (WTO) at its centre.
JUNYA NAKANO (Japan) voiced concern over the protracted impact of the pandemic, which has had devastating impacts on development indicators, warning that the world is no longer on track to end hunger by 2030. A swift response to the crisis is required, he said, calling for recovery efforts to adopt a human security approach to improve food‑assistance programmes. To that end, Japan is implementing nutrition‑assistance programmes across Africa and is cooperating with United Nations processes to reduce hunger and malnutrition. Further, food security and nutrition are linked to large demographic trends, he stated, welcoming the integration of nutrition into the concept of universal health coverage.
ANTONIO RODRIGUE (Haiti) underscored that his country’s geographic location, young population and agricultural potential can position it well to improve its food security. However, Haiti still relies on food imports, which, when combined with political turmoil and the COVID-19 pandemic, heighten the country’s need for increased international assistance. Haiti has adopted a national policy and strategy for food security and sovereignty which specifies the country’s commitments to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through support for family agricultural operations. “These measures seek to reduce dependence on imports and generate wealth,” he said, adding that a pandemic recovery plan is also helping breathe new life into the country’s economic growth.
PERKS LIGOYA (Malawi), associating himself with the African Group, said a growing population, such as the one in his country, exerts pressure on natural resources and can compromise food security. Noting that Malawi’s population of 19 million people is projected to double by 2060, he said the country relies heavily on agriculture, which accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 64 per cent of the labour force. The Commission’s theme is also particularly relevant in the context of COVID-19, which is reversing decades of hard-earned socioeconomic progress. Agreeing with other speakers that links exist between food security, nutrition, adequate public health services and maternal, sexual and reproductive health, he said they are therefore critical to the achievement of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Ensuring the continuity of maternal and neonatal care and the continued provision of sexual and reproductive health, rights, services and information — including those related to family planning — remains a priority, he said.
GABRIELE CACCIA, Permanent Observer for the Holy See, said that, despite the past decade’s efforts, the number of people experiencing hunger and malnutrition is growing. In many parts of the world people lack access to safe and healthy food, he warned, adding that the pandemic has further exacerbated food security concerns. He said 820 million people are suffering from hunger and another 700 million are overweight as a result of improper diets. “We must ensure that the distribution of food is equitable and that healthy food is affordable to all,” he declared, calling on the international community to provide assistance to vulnerable populations and ensure nobody goes hungry. In particular need of assistance are rural communities, migrants and older people who also bear a heavy burden because of the pandemic. “Population growth goes hand in hand with food production,” he said, noting that the challenge is inequality and lack of development, not population growth.
ALEX VAZQUEZ of the International Federation for Family Planning said the disruptions caused by the pandemic emphasize the need to invest in family support services, including health‑care and mental health services, child protection, food, housing, and specialized services for vulnerable families. Pointing to a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, he said the supply and quality of family support services vary across and often within countries, and sharing evidence on good service delivery practices is crucial to ensure services benefit families who need them most. “Families around the globe must be well‑nourished and healthy to achieve the goals and objectives of the International‑Conference on Population and Development and Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.
ADA OKIKA of the Irene Menakaya School declared: “We are all aware that the strength of sustainable living, and good life rests on good food and balanced nutrition.” However, poverty, hunger and lack of access to education combine to prevent inhabitants of rural communities across the world from obtaining the tools required to enjoy balanced nutrition. These inequalities are linked to higher death rates in rural communities and must be mitigated through the provision of development programmes that target the needs of people employed by the agricultural sector in those communities, including by sharing the knowledge required for people to make healthy diet choices.
MARIAN NOWAK of the International Catholic Committee of Nurses and Medico Social Assistants warned that, by 2019, 1 in 9 persons were already experiencing hunger and 45 per cent of deaths in children under the age of five was caused by poor nutrition. She went on to say that higher rates of noncommunicable diseases, such as cardiac disease and diabetes, are found among the poorly nourished and that her organization views food access, food safety and food quality as societal imperatives. To reduce hunger and malnutrition, world leaders must prioritize community-based management strategies, food‑waste‑reduction programming, sustainable farming, development of food banks and use of digital technology for planning.
DEBORAH RAGIN of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues stressed that access to safe water is fundamental to human rights and warned that water stress caused by pollution, forced migration and agricultural production contributes directly and indirectly to poor physical and mental health, beginning in childhood. “Nearly 1,000 children die daily from water-related diarrheal diseases and are 12 times more likely to die of lung cancer and other respiratory ailments due to prenatal and early childhood exposure to arsenic in drinking water,” she declared. To improve these indicators, she said children must be given the opportunity to grow and develop in a healthy environment free of toxins and pollutants that is responsive to their needs.
CLAUDIA GOMEZ of Action by Churches Together said the COVID-19 pandemic and the related aftershocks are pushing women and girls further into poverty and called upon Member States to develop and implement ambitious gender-sensitive national plans, which address the interconnections and interdependence between sexual and reproductive health, human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals. Gender-based discrimination is a critical element affecting access to adequate nutrition and food. “In many places, women and girls are the last to eat and are denied certain nutritious foods due to taboos while pregnant or breastfeeding,” she said, noting that her organization is working to transform societal norms and eliminate harmful attitudes related to gender roles.
Also participating in the general discussion were high‑level representatives from Paraguay, Bangladesh, Libya, Belgium, Egypt and Nigeria.
An observer for the League of Arab States also spoke.
Delegates from the following non-governmental organizations also made statements: Center for Family and Human Rights, World Youth Alliance and FEMM Foundation.