From farm to fork

Many people are not eating the right food. For some, it’s simply a decision to stick with food they enjoy, but which isn’t too healthy. This is leading to an increase in non-communicable diseases. This in turn leads to major burdens on our health-care systems that have the potential to derail the economic progress that is essential for the poor to improve their lives. For others, it’s about limited access to nutritious foods or a lack of affordability, leading to monotonous diets that do not provide the daily nutrients for them to develop fully. Part of the reason nutrition is under threat worldwide is that our food systems are not properly responding to nutritional needs. In other words, somewhere along that long road from farm to fork, there are serious detours taking place.

Fortunately, there is now a major international effort to improve global food systems and link those improvements to better nutrition and diets. Last year, in Rome, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) and the World Health Organisation convened an International Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Improved Nutrition. It was a follow-up to the Second International Conference on Nutrition in 2014. While these big conferences might seem somewhat distant to the realities faced by food producers, farmers, fishers, supply chains and processors, they are placing nutrition at the centre of the debate on improving our food systems, which is where it needs to be, because while improving nutrition is a personal responsibility, it also begins at the desk of the policymaker and at the end of a pitchfork.

Indeed, the vast majority of the food we eat is produced by smallholder farmers, many of whom are poor and undernourished themselves. Improvements to food systems must be achieved in ways that benefit their livelihood and nutritional needs. The Sustainable Development Goals have a target that recognises that smallholders provide a critical entry point for building dynamic rural economies and they need to be resourced with inputs and technology and linked to higher market value.

Diets are changing, but not always for the better – and that’s a big worry. Bringing together the key players in the food system makes sense because the policymakers who can push the nutrition agenda forward need to hear what works and what doesn’t from the people who grow our food, and from the people who transport it, process it, market it and sell it.

This week in Bangkok, FAO and other UN partners are bringing together experts on nutrition and major players in the food systems sector from across Asia and the Pacific. The outcomes of the Asia-Pacific Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Improved Nutrition will provide further support to the aims of the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025). We must all work together to equip our food systems to produce and deliver more nutritious food. Only then can the goal of achieving zero hunger be realised.

Kundhavi Kadiresan is Assistant Director-General and FAO Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand