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Obesity or starvation: summit warns of extremes

12 August 2016

PA

Trek: Frehiwat (left) carries her two-year-old niece, Danit, and Senait (right), carrying her two-year-old stepsister, Eyeru, at a nutrition and health screening clinic in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, last month

Trek: Frehiwat (left) carries her two-year-old niece, Danit, and Senait (right), carrying her two-year-old stepsister, Eyeru, at a nutrition and...

CHRONIC hunger affects 800 million people in the world, and yet there are countries in which more than 70 per cent of the adult population is obese or overweight, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned at a global summit to address malnutrition.

The director general of WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, was speaking to world leaders, scientists, businesses, and NGOs at the Nutrition for Growth Summit, on the eve of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday of last week.

In her opening address, Dr Chan warned that the global nutrition scale is “characterised by extremes”, and must be met with “extreme policies”; governments must acknowledge that “the scale of the health problems created by these two extremes is enormous.”

More than two billion people suffer from micro-nutrient deficiencies, she said, while nearly an equal number are obese or overweight. There are also about 159 million young children in the world whose growth has been stunted from malnutrition, and 50 million who are starved; while countries in North America and Europe have “nearly twice” the food that they need.

Dr Chan also warned that, “in an era of sustainable development, we must address the problem of food losses and waste”, not only in developed countries, where edible food is regularly thrown out, but in countries where harvests are wasted owing to extreme weather, poor roads, and a lack of refrigeration.

The Nutrition for Growth Summit was first held in London in 2012 — again, before the Olympic Games. The UK hosted 94 governments, UN agencies, NGOs, and private companies, who agreed on the Global Compact on Nutrition. It resulted in more than £3 billion in donated funds, and set out targets to be achieved by 2020.

At least 500 million pregnant women and children under the age of two were to be given sufficient nutrition, it stated, and at least 1.7 million lives were to be saved by reducing stunted growth, increasing breastfeeding, and treating severe acute malnutrition.

The WHO estimates, however, that 49 per cent of countries do not have enough nutrition data to determine whether they are on course for meeting such targets — and producing more food is not always the answer.

“In the current dynamics in rich and poor countries alike, producing more food means wasting and losing more food,” Dr Chan said. She concluded that the focus must be “on the nexus where policies for addressing the extremes of under-nutrition and over-nutrition converge”.

The international aid agency World Vision warned that three million children a year would die unless such action was taken by governments to prevent malnutrition. A nutrition expert for World Vision, Carolyn MacDonald, said: “International collaboration is crucial to achieve the gains we require.

“We know how effective it is to invest in proper nutrition for a child’s first 1000 days. The wins include: reduced child deaths, improved learning, and better productivity as adults. All these factors are essential for sustainable development.”

The government-relations manager at World Vision UK, Peter Keegan, said that the UK should “seize the opportunity in Rio to build political momentum”, and should encourage the European Union and other donors and businesses to invest in “nutrition-specific plans”, such as promoting breastfeeding and supplementing poor diets.

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