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UN: Global Malnutrition Costs Are Unacceptable


Women sell vegetables and other food in a market on World Food Day in Lagos, Nigeria, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. One in eight people around the world goes to bed hungry every night, according to the United Nations.

Women sell vegetables and other food in a market on World Food Day in Lagos, Nigeria, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. One in eight people around the world goes to bed hungry every night, according to the United Nations.

Global hunger, poor nutrition and obesity are costing the world trillions of dollars in health costs and lost productivity, according to a new report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The FAO report says fighting hunger is not enough. Tackling the more complex problem of malnutrition calls for action across the entire food system, from farm to fork.

About 870 million people worldwide are hungry, according to the FAO. But malnutrition is about more than just hunger.

“Two billion people are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals," said FAO's Kostas Stamoulis. "One child in four under the age of five is stunted. And 1.4 billion people are overweight.”

The FAO report says the combined effects of all these forms of malnutrition cut the world’s income by an estimated five percent per year, or about $3.5 trillion.

While about 40 countries have reached the goal of reducing hunger by half, there is a long way to go to improve nutrition.

Stamoulis says that is because good nutrition has not been the top priority.

“There has been more effort and more success in providing people with the quantity of food that would allow them to overcome what we call the undernourishment problem," he said. "But we need a little bit more coordination and better focus on malnutrition.”

The focus on nutrition is a new approach for FAO. The effort needs to involve players throughout the entire food system, from farmers and food processors to consumers and government agencies, according to FAO Deputy Director-General Daniel Gustafson.

“Everyone has to have nutrition goals and nutrition outcomes in mind throughout the food chain, and throughout all our work," he said. "And that is, in fact, a significant change.”

That work includes promoting diverse diets, boosting the production of nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, and cutting waste, which claims nearly a third of the food produced worldwide.

Stamoulis praised modern food processing, packaging and retailing for its efficiency, making meals available and affordable in ever-increasing areas. But he cautioned that ready access to unhealthy meals is also contributing to obesity.

Ultimately, Stamoulis says, consumers are the key to making healthy food systems work.

“You can process food properly, you can produce it properly, you can have the possibility to supply diverse diets," he said. "But if they are not consumed, the impact that we expect will be low.”
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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