Topic Overview

Agricultural scientists have for long highlighted the plight of the under-nourished. Whilst the number of people in this category globally has been falling since the beginning of the century they still number over 815 million and recently the figure has started to climb again. However, in an era of cars and mechanisation, the number of people globally who are overweight and obese is as high as 2 billion. These people are distributed in both developed and developing countries and represent a frightening prospect for health professionals with respect to increased rates of diabetes and other diseases associated with excess weight.

If we look to the causes of this future obesity epidemic, clearly increasing wealth and access to cheaper, processed, high calorific foods along with lack of exercise are implicated.

The 2018 conference asked the question if there are ways in which agricultural producers can contribute positively to reducing under and over-nutrition? Herein, lies something of a paradox.

For agricultural scientists, involved in international development, the mantra for many years has been predominantly to increase yields to tackle a perceived deficit in food production. This predicated the Green Revolution of the 1950s-70s which undoubtedly prevented up to 2 billion starving. Today, however, enough food is grown globally to feed everyone.

The 815 million under-nourished people and instances of food riots, such as occurred in some countries during the 2007-08 food crisis, are really symptoms of lack of access to appropriately nutritious food due to inequality and inadequate distribution systems. Indeed, continued striving for greater yield has put extra pressure on global land and water resources, ecosystem services and environment in general, not to mention the fact that agriculture is already a large and growing greenhouse gas emitter.

Whilst, with a growing global population forecast to reach 9.7 billion in 2050, we do need to maintain work on food security with an emphasis on systems’ sustainability, it is evident that we also need to direct more resources into nutritional security. This should be with a perspective of improving nutrition of both the under-and over-nourished.

The conference presented the big picture and challenges faced to deliver healthy diets. The triple burden of undernourishment, over-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies was explained. Speakers examined sustainability issues recognised in the Sustainable Development Goals, planetary health concerns and the empowerment of women to influence dietary intake and health outcomes. Similarly, they were asked to give consideration to what role agriculture (‘in-isolation’) can play, vs how agricultural interventions can work best alongside interventions from other fields – e.g. WASH, education & behavioural change, communication, social safety nets, gender and trade policy.

Following an overview keynote, specific sessions focused on challenges and impacts of poor nutrition, agriculture’s potential response, policy changes required and the role of the private sector.

A synthesis session concluded the conference and highlighted:

  • The best ways for agriculture and the food industry to help promote healthier diets taking into account the opportunities and constraints.
  • What behaviours have to change and what policy levers are needed to assist in the move towards a healthy diet?
  • What are the synergies between healthier diets and a healthy environment and what are the trade-offs that will have to be considered?