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Rome Conference to Target Malnutrition, Obesity

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - A severely malnourished child lies on the bed at MSF hospital Bentiu, South Sudan, July 3, 2014.

FILE - A severely malnourished child lies on the bed at MSF hospital Bentiu, South Sudan, July 3, 2014.

An upcoming international conference on nutrition will focus on the twin evils of malnutrition and obesity. Representatives from at least 140 governments, including 90 ministers and members of private institutions and civil societies, will gather in Rome next week to devise strategies for improving the nutritional status of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The conference, which is jointly organized by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization will address multiple issues related to nutrition. These include the problems of under-nutrition, obesity, and chronic diseases related to poor diet.

Global statistics are not encouraging. WHO reports more than 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger. More than 160 million children are affected by chronic malnutrition or stunting. At the same time, it says 42 million children under age five are overweight. These figures tell an even more dramatic story when statistics on adult under and over-nutrition are factored in.

FAO and WHO agree the global food system is broken and must be fixed to provide healthy nutritional diets for those who are deprived. They say it is possible to enact policies that can improve the quality of the food supply, provide healthy foods and intervene directly in life-saving therapy when needed.

Xiangjun Yao, the director of the FAO Liaison Office in Geneva, says good nutrition is composed of many strands. Therefore, she says there must be a holistic approach to cover the whole food chain.

“To us, the food system, it should be something from the farm to the table, from what we call farm to fork and, that covers production, processing, storage, distribution, preparation and also consumption,” Yao said.

The U.N. agencies will be proposing a large, comprehensive list of strategies to the conference for approval. The plan of action will call for greater focus on the nutrition of children from birth to age two to avoid malnutrition and stunting. It also calls for greater attention to the needs of pregnant and lactating women as well as to the most neglected and socially marginalized groups in society.

The centerpiece of the conference, which will run from November 19 to 21, will be a political declaration asking governments to commit themselves to eradicate hunger and prevent all forms of malnutrition worldwide by 2025.

Director of the WHO's Department of Nutrition, Franceso Branca, tells VOA that the so-called SDG II or Sustainable Development Goal will go beyond the Millennium Development Goals, which have succeeded in halving hunger in at least 63 countries by 2015.

“It is not enough to look at the underweight children," said Branca. "We have also to look at children who have not grown to their full potential, who are stunted… Let us look at those kids who are not growing to their full potential and that is an issue not only about amount, you know calories, but of the quality of the diet. And, this conference is trying to say that -- it is not just a quantity issue, it is a quality issue. We do not only want only to talk about food security, but of nutrition security.”

Branca says the goal is to make sure the food that reaches tables all over the world, in rich and poor countries alike, is of good nutritional quality.

Conference organizers say nutrition is not just an individual matter. They say malnutrition has serious effects on the whole population. Therefore, they note investing in nutrition is not only crucially important from a moral standpoint, but from an economic one.

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