By Gerold Bödeker, FAO representative to Iran

What we eat determines our health and future

October 15, 2019

In recent decades, our diets and eating habits have dramatically changed, moving from seasonal, mainly plant-based and fibre-rich dishes to high calorie diets and processed foods, loaded with sugar, fat and salt. These days also in Iran, less time is spent to prepare meals at home, and consumers rely on fast food outlets and home delivery of processed foods.

Urbanization and technological innovation have transformed our habits, promoting sedentary lifestyles that involve little or no physical activity; that means fewer calories are burned throughout the day. 

A combination of unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles has sent obesity rates soaring in high, middle and even low-income countries – where hunger and overweight often coexist. 

Based on the latest data provided by FAO, globally, over 670 million adults and 120 million girls and boys (5-19 years) are obese, and over 40 million children under 5 are overweight, while over 820 million people still suffer from hunger. 

The costs of unhealthy diets and obesity

An unhealthy diet and obesity take a toll on human, financial and environmental resources.

Poor diets, combined with sedentary lifestyles, have become the world’s number one leading risk factor for disability and death from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and certain cancers. Unhealthy eating habits also cost national health budgets up to USD 2 trillion per year globally. 

Not only our food systems play a major role in our poor diet, but they also contribute to environmental degradation. In the way our food systems currently work, from agricultural production to processing and retailing, there is little space for fresh, locally produced foods as staple crops such as cereals take priority. High demands for specific varieties and mono-cultivation practices, along with excessive use of agricultural inputs made natural resources unsustainable for future generations, the super-high pressure on our environment has pushed the biodiversity and wildlife to its very limit and extinction. Today only nine plant species account for 66% of total crop production despite the fact that throughout history, more than 6000 species have been cultivated for food. 

What’s the alternative?

It is important for us to change our approaches in terms of the food we produce, process and consume. 

At the governmental level, countries must expand their agriculture policies beyond staple food production to include investments and research on crops such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes. The officials should put in place policies and laws with proper incentives to protect healthy diets and encourage the private sector to produce healthier foods. Governments also need to adopt agriculture-led approaches that protect biodiversity and promote dietary diversity through solutions such as home gardens and other homestead food production models, intercropping and mixed landscapes, promotion of forgotten and under-utilized local crops, improved irrigation, aquaculture, responsible fisheries, and small animal production systems. 

When it comes to the farmers, they can make a contribution to sustainable food and nutrition security through pursuing ways to grow more food with the same amount of land, water and agricultural inputs broadening their use of new tools that make weather and market-related information more available to all, and getting involved in policy, program and monitoring processes to make their voices heard. 

The private sector should cooperate and follow government regulations in restructuring food chains to make the final healthier. 

As consumers, we can support local food producers, adopt a more nutritious diet, reduce food waste and be more environmentally conscious. We must increase our intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. 

FAO based on its broad network of offices, partners and technical expertise could provide countries with information on various dimensions of malnutrition and support national efforts to develop food and nutrition policies, legislation and dietary guidelines.

Two days ago FAO released its new edition of the State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA), a flagship report that aims at bringing to a wider audience balanced science-based assessments regarding world food losses and waste. The report released the Food Loss Index (FLI) which indicates that globally – in terms of economic value – around 14 percent of food produced is lost from post-harvest up to, but not including, the retail level. 

“Our actions are Our Future,” today we celebrate World Food Day calling people and stakeholders all around the world to take action to make healthy and sustainable diets accessible and affordable to everyone. 

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