Nutrition, health, education, social protection and agriculture professionals convene in Budapest with FAO, WHO, UNICEF, WFP

4 December 2017, Budapest, Hungary – More than 200 experts and professionals in the fields of nutrition, health, education, social protection and agriculture are convening in Budapest today. They have one thing in common: the conviction that local, national, regional and global food systems could be doing a lot more to improve people’s diets.

The two-day Regional Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets is organized jointly by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO), in collaboration with UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP). It is the fourth in a series of symposia initiated by FAO and taking place around the world this fall – all aimed at leveraging the potential of food systems to promote healthy diets.

Symposium participants include representatives of government, parliamentarians, academia, private sector, non-governmental organizations, professional associations, farmers, cooperatives, and civil society. The different sectors are coming together to help advance favourable policy processes, strongly encouraged by the Second FAO/WHO International Conference on Nutrition (Rome, 2014) and as part of the United Nations Decade of Actions on Nutrition 2016-2025.

The different forms of malnutrition – stunting, wasting, overweight, obesity, vitamin and mineral deficiencies – are present to some extent in all countries of Europe and Central Asia. According to FAO/WHO data, more than 55 percent of adults across the region are overweight or obese, and millions suffer from anaemia, iodine, zinc, or vitamin A and D deficiencies.

Many of the factors driving unhealthy diets lie outside the field of personal food choice, according to FAO food safety and consumer protection officer Eleonora Dupouy, coordinator of the event. Achieving healthy diets is a multisectoral and multi-level task and responsibility, she said.

“Today we understand that good nutrition is dependent not only on agricultural productivity, but on entire food systems – all the way from production planning to consumption,” Dupouy said.

“We need to look along the value chains and within each element of food systems to see where nutritional value is at risk of being lost, or where there are opportunities to preserve or enhance it,” Dupouy said. “We need to think about infrastructure such as storage and processing facilities, roads and markets, to make sure nutritious and safe food is physically available to people in both remote rural areas and inner cities. The goal is to leave no one behind.”

Lack of understanding of what constitutes sustainable food systems, or of what sustainable, healthy diets look like can also be an obstacle, Dupouy said. Schools and educators can play an important role in changing this. Awareness raising is important in other sectors, too, such as health care and social protection.

“Lack of understanding of what constitutes a sustainable

food system, or of what a sustainable and healthy diet looks like, can be an obstacle.

Schools and educators can play an important role in changing this.”

Eleonora Dupouy

FAO Food safety and consumer protection officer

Agriculture itself could contribute more to nutritional levels than it currently does. FAO is promoting crop diversification – shifting away from an emphasis on staple grains and taking a second look at underutilized local crops rich in micronutrients. Often, local biodiversity, knowledge and traditional practices can serve as a foundation for improved nutrition.

“We need to build bridges between the different professional areas and governmental sectors, so that we have a shared understanding of each potential contribution and responsibility,” Dupouy said. “Among other things, it also helps us identify strategic partnership opportunities and mobilize resources.”

Low-quality diets are the number one modifiable risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and diabetes, according to WHO data. They contribute to high Disability Adjusted Life Years, or DALY, values in the region, especially in Eastern Europe where countries have seen rapid increases in income levels over the past 20 years.

The 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals make it clear: food security and good nutrition for everyone are fundamental. Unless people are well nourished and in good health, many of the other Goals are at risk, too.