A new report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Panel on Agriculture says two billion people lack the range of vitamins and minerals in their diet needed to keep them healthy. This report also highlights a fact about global nutrition that few people realize: obesity and stunting from undernourishment now occur in the same communities, and actually impact worldwide roughly an equal number of people. As this story from the BBC describes, as a result of this dietary shift chronic conditions like heart disease, hypertension and diabetes are on the rise, and alarmingly are appearing in developing countries as well as more affluent developed nations that have traditionally exhibited diet-related health issues (Pigott, 2016).
In short, people in many developing countries are making too many poor food choices, in large part because poverty results in access to only processed foods high in salt, sugar, and fat, and low in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The solution is clear — farmers need to produce a greater diversity and higher volume of nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, and nuts. These crops take up well under 5% of global cropland, a modest shift from corn and soybeans to these crops would dramatically improve diets (if accessible and affordable).
The switch to organic production systems also increases nutrient density by about 20%, as shown in our British Journal of Nutrition meta-analyses. But don’t count on hearing much about these solutions. What agribusiness will argue is we need more biotech and that science must be unleashed to advance global food security. Of course, science has a huge role to play, but only if R+D investments are focused on the right mix of crops and technologies, and driven by a goal of advancing people’s health, as opposed to giving companies another way and reason to raise prices of proprietary, genetically engineered crop varieties. More investment on that path will make matters worse.
Robert Pigott, “Poor food ‘risks health of half the world,'” September 25, 2016, BBC News