Photograph by Markus Scholz, dpa/Corbis

Read Caption

Good nutrition is especially critical for children, as hunger undermines their physical and cognitive development.

Photograph by Markus Scholz, dpa/Corbis

Opinion: To Combat Malnutrition, Don't Just Produce More Food—Produce Better Food

Two billion people lack essential micronutrients in their diets. We need to create more nutritious food systems, says FAO director-general.

Our current food systems face a tough challenge: ensuring food security as well as a balanced diet for everyone around the globe.

The figures are striking: Around 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger, and roughly two billion people suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies. At the same time, over half a billion people are obese.

Overcoming hunger and malnutrition in the 21st century no longer means simply increasing the quantity of available food. Quality must also increase. We can do this most effectively by creating nutritious, sustainable, and responsive food systems. (See "Opinion: Want to Make a Dent in World Hunger? Build Better Roads.")

Food production has tripled since 1945, while average food availability per person has risen just 40 percent.

Despite the abundance of food supplies, 805 million people still go to bed hungry each day—791 million of them live in developing countries. Hunger affects their ability to work, undermines the physical and cognitive development of their children, exposes them to illnesses, and causes premature deaths. (See "Study Sheds Light on Broadening U.S. Hunger Problem.")

The health of two billion people is compromised because their diets lack essential micronutrients, which prevents them from reaching their full potential.

We live in a unique time when hunger in parts of the world is juxtaposed with rising levels of obesity in others. Some 1.5 billion people consume food in quantities that lead to their being overweight or obese. This, in turn, can expose them to greater risk of diabetes, heart problems, and other diet-related non-communicable diseases.

Our food systems must become more responsive to people's needs, including those of food-insecure, socially excluded, poor households. Good nutrition is critical for the mothers and young children in such households, especially during a child's first 1,000 days—from conception to the age of 24 months.

We need to ensure that better food is consumed by those who need it most. And we need to do it in a way that is environmentally sustainable and protects the capacity of future generations to feed themselves. (See "World Making Progress Against Hunger, Report Finds, but Large Pockets of Undernourished Persist.")

Our focus on high food output has put great stress on natural resources—degrading soils, exhausting fresh water supplies, encroaching on forests, depleting wild fish stocks, and reducing biodiversity. Intensive farming systems and massive food wastage contribute to global warming.

Our current approach to food production needs to recognize these challenges and deal with them now. We cannot wait until 2050, when we will have to feed over nine billion people.

Fortunately, we have the means to transform our production systems and make them more sustainable, responsive, and empowering for local communities.

Healthy Food Systems for Healthier People

A strong political commitment is required to improve our food systems. Nutrition needs to be moved higher up the development agenda. Better diets have to become an explicit objective of policies, programs, and interventions in the food systems.

Agricultural research and development must focus on finding new and improved ways to produce more diverse, balanced, and healthy diets that include more nutrient-rich foods and to support farmers in fostering local biodiversity and diversified farming systems.

We must also ensure that natural resources are used more efficiently, with fewer adverse impacts: getting more and better food from every drop of water, plot of land, gram of fertilizer, and minute of labor.

Meat, milk, and eggs are improving the diets of people in developing countries, while the livestock sector continues to be a source of income and livelihoods for millions. This sector should be encouraged and strengthened further. We should also manage livestock production more sustainably and find ways to reduce its contribution to climate change, transmission of diseases, and overall health.

These changes to the food system need to go hand in hand with interventions in public health, education, employment, and social protection.

A Smart Investment

We need to involve all key players throughout the food system—governments, consumers, producers, distributors, and researchers—in this transformation.

The upcoming Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in Rome this year (November 19-21) will provide a historic opportunity to galvanize political commitment to enhance nutrition for all through better policies and international solidarity.

Better nutrition makes economic sense. If the global community decided today to invest $1.2 billion every year for the next five years on reducing micronutrient deficiencies, the annual economic gains to society would be close to $15 billion—a benefit-to-cost ratio of almost 13 to 1.

Faced with these numbers, it's hard to justify not making the investment in better nutrition for better lives.

José Graziano da Silva is the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). An agronomist, he served as special minister of food security and the fight against hunger in Brazil.