IFPRI’s seminar on “Leveraging Agriculture to Tackle Non-communicable Diseases” anticipates UN high level meeting

By Isaac Hopkins

On September 7th, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) hosted a seminar and panel discussion about the role that food and agriculture research can, and should, play in the high level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on September 19-20. It was a continuation of their large “Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health 2020 Conference,” held in New Delhi, India, this past February.

IFPRI's seminar last week is a continuation of their conference in New Delhi this past February, focusing on leveraging agriculture to improve global health. (Image Credit: IFPRI)

Last week’s seminar addressed the alarming escalation of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in developing nations. Once perceived as threats only to developed countries, conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and cancer actually afflict a higher proportion of people in poorer areas of the world. As many as 80 percent of deaths in developing countries are caused by NCDs.

“We’ve got a gap between evidence and policy,” explained Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University in London during his presentation. He discussed how the seeds of today’s problems were sown 70 years ago, when policy makers established the concept that the best way to fight malnutrition and increase health would be to produce more grain. The developed world certainly did increase raw production, but “this doesn’t fit the 21st century,” said Dr. Lang. We now know that a focus on overproducing a select few grains has many drawbacks for the health of consumers, especially those in poverty.

Dr. Lang suggested a complete system overhaul, in which our agricultural and health policies are solidified into a comprehensive global food system solution, rather than the current detached “bits of what is needed.” He stressed that “health as a lobby is very weak,” and must get better organized. Any response to our broken food system should focus on the entire structure rather than just the farm or store. And, he says, we should emphasize healthy and sustainable vegetables more than meat or dairy, or as he put it, “plants in the middle of the farm, plants in the middle of the plate.”

Rachel Nugent, from University of Washington’s Department of Global Health also spoke. She advocated a shift in focus from individual nutrients or simple calories toward dietary quality as a whole. This would ease the “double-burden” on those trying to combat NCDs, where half of the risks to developing countries’ health come from over-eating, and the other half come from under-eating. According to Nugent, solutions that address only one or the other will ultimately not curtail the $30 trillion estimated loss from the global economy caused by NCDs.

Derek Yach, Senior Vice President of Global Health and Agriculture Policy at PepsiCo, provided a perspective from the private sector. He emphasized that large corporations like PepsiCo still account for only a small percentage of food in developing nations –the top ten corporations combined provide only 12 percent of packaged food, for example. This decentralized food distribution system necessitates cooperation between private companies of all sizes, not just internationals. He stressed the importance of linking individual farmers to markets and technology as a means of meeting nutritional demands, not just calorie demands, of those countries, as well as establishing food supply reserves.

Dr. Yach analyzed some of the ways in which the private sector may be able to help solve the problem of NCD prevalence in developing countries, including decreasing reliance on sodium and palm oil in products. PepsiCo, for example, has substantially decreased sodium in most of its products. He pointed, however, to several unsuccessful lines of goods that were intended to provide health benefits as an illustration that consumer demands ultimately drive markets, and “without profits we can’t make [necessary] changes.”

The upcoming United Nations’ high level meeting is only the second ever to focus on a health issue (the first focused on communicable diseases – HIV/AIDS – in 2001). Many view this as an opportunity to shift focus and funding toward NCDs.  To see videos of all three presentations, follow this link. Click here for more information on the UN high level meeting. Check out our blog from this past February’s New Delhi conference here.

Isaac Hopkins is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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