Date released
04 December 2018

The good news is that globally, since 1969, we have halved the number of people going to bed hungry. The bad news is that we have a long way to go to solve the double burden of nutrition: two billion people worldwide are malnourished and lacking vital micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A, and 2.1 billion adults are overweight or obese. According to Devex (the media platform for the global development community, which produced a number of features from the conference), ‘An increasing number of countries face this double burden, where children are born into environments with limited food, leading to stunting, only to face obesity as adults as changing economic conditions and urbanisation lead to more food choices.’

There are, speakers told the conference, major challenges in global food supply. ‘Food is fuelling several of the major global challenges of our time,’ said Dr Alessandro Demaio, the conference opening keynote speaker and CEO of the EAT Foundation. ‘Current food systems fail one in two people worldwide, and poor diets are now the leading risk factor for disease, globally.’

‘Not one sector of global society—low-, middle- or high-income individuals—is consuming calcium, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds in the quantity needed for good health,’ Demaio explained, detailing the statistics.

There is a strong imbalance in the food we are producing: 11% fewer vegetables than needed, 44% less fruit and 68% less nuts and seeds. Tipping the balance the other way, Demaio said, is our production of 48% more fish, 54% more grains, and 468% more meat than is needed to support global nutrition.

The message conveyed throughout the conference was clear. To turn this around—to provide nutritious, micronutrient-rich foods for an increasing global population through sustainable agriculture—requires a concerted, cohesive and collaborative effort.

As Professor Andrew Campbell, CEO of ACIAR argued, ‘Too often I think we’ve conceived of a multidisciplinary team as having an agronomist and an economist … (but) we now need to think about how agriculture works with public health, with sectors we’re not used to working with. We need an integrated approach to face the challenges of the convergence of food, nutrition, water and health … amplified by climate change,’ he said.

To support this integration, Demaio and the EAT Foundation are working with the world’s leading independent general medical journal, The Lancet, on the ‘EAT–Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems’. Their goal is to set ‘scientific targets defining healthy diets and sustainable food systems [which in turn] can help link agriculture, health sciences and sectors to better practice and policy’. The Commission’s report will be released in late 2018.

Speakers said while agriculture may have answered the food quantity challenge successfully, it now needs to focus on food quality to ensure global nutrition needs are met. With current progress, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 2: ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’ would be unlikely to be met by the 2025 target date.

Several speakers highlighted the complexity surrounding food quality, acknowledging the multilayered cultural, agricultural, political and geographical factors that affect food quality and nutrition. One theme was a call for more food diversity. This included the need to reassert the value of traditional and indigenous foods and recognise the important role they can play in improving global nutrition.

Dr Marco Wopereis, Director General of the World Vegetable Center (WorldVeg), for example, compared the nutritional value of traditional vegetables such as amaranth and moringa leaves with common cabbage. Amaranth and moringa outperformed cabbage on every measure. Moringa is especially rich in vitamin E, iron and folates and has a very high antioxidant activity score. However, Wopereis told the conference that unfortunately these traditional vegetables represent only 5% of the 60,000 accessions to the world’s largest collection of vegetable germplasm held in WorldVeg’s genebank.

Philmah Seta-Waken, an agronomist working with the National Agricultural Research Institute (and an ACIAR John Dillon Fellow), reinforced the importance of traditional vegetables in Papua New Guinea. Not only are vegetables such as amaranth, pit pit and slippery cabbage more nutritious, she said, ‘but they are generally better suited to the local climate, and require less fertiliser and insect and disease controls, than more globally popular vegetables’. Moringa, for example, which is native to India but grown widely in tropical and subtropical areas, is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree, which also appears to be relatively disease-resistant.

‘Smart Food—food that is good for you, the planet and the farmer—can have a major impact on the mega-global issues of malnutrition, poverty and environmental degradation,’ Joanna Kane-Potaka told the conference. Kane-Potaka is Assistant Director General of the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and Executive Director of the Smart Food initiative. The Smart Food initiative encourages the uptake of cereals such as sorghum and millet because of their nutritional, environmental and agricultural benefits. Smart Food would like to see the current global staples of wheat, rice and maize—the ‘big three’—become the ‘big five’, supplemented by traditional grains such as sorghum and millet.

Millets and sorghum have considerable health benefits. Finger millet, for example, has three times more calcium than milk; pearl, little and barnyard millet have 2–4 times more iron than meat; and all millets and sorghum are gluten-free with a low glycaemic index. Millet and sorghum are also generally hardier crops. ICRISAT says that pearl millet, which represents 50% of millet grown globally, ‘is the world’s hardiest warm-season crop’, growing in some of the least fertile soils in West and Central Africa.

While grains and vegetables are important, Dr Anna Okello, ACIAR’s Research Program Manager for Livestock Systems, reminded the conference of the importance of livestock to human health and nutrition. She said, ‘Livestock provided 14% of total calories and 33% of protein globally,’ as well as being an important source of micronutrients such as vitamins A and B, calcium, iron and zinc. ‘Livestock also brings indirect health and nutrition benefits.’

ACIAR also took the opportunity of the nutrition and agriculture expertise present at the conference to hold a roundtable to workshop ways for better including nutrition in the ACIAR agenda.