The nutritional challenges of the new millennium start from sustainability

July 19, 2018

There are three food paradoxes already described by the BCFN several years ago in its publication volume Eating Planet and underlined again in the more recent Nourished Planet: malnutrition alongside an undeniable obesity epidemic; food used for animals and biofuels but not available for people, and finally food wastage on a Planet where many still go hungry. And then there are the 17 United Nations sustainable development goals which, although they range from global health care to the health of the oceans or gender differences , are all linked by one common factor: food. 

“To have No Poverty (Goal #1) we first have to combat hunger worldwide; to fight climate change (Goal #13), we must remember thatfarming generates over 30% of greenhouse gas emissions," say the BCFN experts, who every year dedicate their International Forum on Food and Nutrition to the latest nutritional challenges, reminding us all that, if we are to overcome these challenges, sustainability is more important than ever. 

Nutrition and Health
Every year worldwide 36 million people die due to malnutrition and famine, while 3.4 million people die because of being overweight. Today as never before, secure access to healthy food is one of the biggest nutritional challenges at the global level, which must be tackled by a joint effort of all the planet's countries. There is no doubt that a varied, balanced diet - the Mediterranean diet is a prime example - is the key to a long, healthy life. 

This is underlined by the findings of a large number of clinical and epidemiological studies, which however also remind us that, today the world is facing a real "nutritional crisis" which also affects the developed countries. While in 1915 life expectancy in western countries was just 45 years, by 2013 it had increased to 80 years, but the percentage of people suffering from chronic diseases (over 80% amongst those over 65) has also risen dramatically. There is also a global upward trend in new diagnoses of conditions such as cancer, diabetes or deaths due to cardiovascular diseases, which are forecast to reach 23.6 million by 2030. 

In this rather disheartening scenario, food may be the problem (when eaten to excess or in an unbalanced way) but also the solution, if chosen correctly and intelligently. On the other side of the coin, we find malnutrition, the lack of food, which every year causes the death of about 3 million children, particularly vulnerable to the effects of food since they are still growing. “The right diet during the first few years of life is important for the child's complete physical and mental development, but also because it provides protection against diseases which may be encountered in later life," explained paediatrician Claudio Maffeis during the Second International Forum on Food and Nutrition organized by the BCFN.

The right to food
In a general context in which for the first time there are more obese and overweight than there are malnourished people, the problem of secure access to sufficient food continues to be crucial for many people. “Access to food is a fundamental human right, essential for the prosperity of any society," we learn from the book Nourished Planet, in which the BCFN experts identify the removal of inequalities in access to food as one of the modern nutritional challenges and "the final ingredient in the recipe for sustainable food systems”. In practice, low food production and unsustainable consumption practices can reduce entire populations to food poverty, or in some cases even cause famines, which put the lives of millions of people at risk and jeopardize the entire socio-economic systems of the poorest countries. But food security - defined as a state in which everyone has physical and economic access to enough, safe, nourishing food at any time - is not just a problem in developing countries. 

A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) underlines that the number of malnourished people in rich countries rose to 16 million in 2012, an increase of 3 million compared to 2006. Amongst the barriers still blocking the path towards the recognition and realization of access to food as a right, poverty is certainly a major factor. The 2013 data show that, in that year, 10.7% of the world's population lived on less than 1.90 US dollars a day: many farmers who live in rural areas are poor, and there is a need to focus on the reduction of this poverty, since, as the World Bank experts have stated, every percentage point of increase in gross domestic product (GDP) generated by the farming sector is twice as effective in reducing poverty as the same increase in any other sector. 

Environment-friendly food systems
Farming and the correlated land use are responsible for 31% of total greenhouse gas emissions, an impact significantly higher than that recorded for the energy industry (23.6%) and for transport (18.5%). Livestock farms are responsible for a further 12% of total carbon dioxide emissions, and food products add an additional 5% according to data published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In other words, food and its production have a huge impact on the environment, and daily food choices have a key role in protecting the planet. As the Eating Planet and Nourished Planet publications tell us, calculating the footprint of the foods we put on our tables in terms of carbon dioxide emissions (Carbon Footprint), water (Water Footprint) and land use (Ecological Footprint) is a first step in raising the awareness of consumers and political decision-makers. For example, it will help to highlight the fact that producing one kilogram (kg) of beef "costs" up to 26,230 carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2 eq.) and 19,525 liters of water, compared with 495 CO2 eq. and 930 liters of water for a kg of fruit. However, it is not just a matter of awareness. It is also important to take effective action on complex issues such as the use and distribution of land suitable for cultivation, food prices, technological innovation in production systems, and food processing and transportation, by way of education and public information.