The U.S. should bring the agriculture and food sector to the table on the topic of global malnutrition, a report released last week by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs said.
To discuss the report, and malnutrition in the context of U.S. assistance, the group held a symposium in Washington, D.C., last week. Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, co-chair of The Chicago Council advisory group that drafted the report, and current Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack both attended.
Global malnutrition focus
Malnutrition – from undernourishment to obesity – is a global challenge affecting every country on earth and placing more than one quarter of the world's population at serious health risk, the group said. Given that nutrition is driven largely by the food people eat, making nutrition a priority could drive economic growth in poor countries and increase the incomes of 2.5 billion small-scale farmers, many of whom themselves are malnourished, the group says.
Related: U.S. Ag: Poised to Feed the World?
"The healthcare and lost labor costs associated with malnutrition are burdening governments and economies, and the social costs it inflicts are unacceptable," said Ambassador Ivo H. Daalder, president of The Chicago Council. "Food plays such an important role in health, and it is critical that all those involved – agriculture, food, nutrition and health leaders – work together to solve the problem."
Specifically, The Chicago Council report recommends that:
• The U.S. Congress commit to a long-term global food and nutrition strategy focused on agricultural development and convene a bipartisan commission on how to tackle nutrition challenges globally.
• The U.S. government, in partnership with universities and research institutes, increase funding for nutrition research to expand access to nutrient-rich foods and address malnutrition.
• The United States draw on the strength of its research facilities and universities to train the next generation of agriculture, food, and nutrition leaders both here and in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
• Government and industry work together to support more efficient and wider delivery of healthy foods, especially through technologies that can reduce food waste and enhance food safety.
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"It seems obvious that what we eat has a huge impact on our health and well-being, yet for too long the agendas of the agriculture, nutrition and health sectors have been disconnected," Glickman said.
"With the ever-increasing global prevalence of chronic disease driven in part by malnutrition and shortages of nutritious food in many countries, it is imperative that we make nutritious foods more widely available and affordable."
Malnutrition rates are on the rise, increasingly saddling economies with lower productivity and higher healthcare costs. Adults who were undernourished as children earn at least 20% less than those that were not, and a staggering 4-9% of most countries' gross domestic product must cover the cost of treating those who are overweight or obese.
By 2030 the global decline in productivity resulting from chronic disease could cost $35 trillion, the group says. More than half of those who are chronically hungry are small-scale farmers.
Vilsack on climate change, ag production
Speaking at the symposium, Vilsack addressed the ability of farmers to contribute to economic and food security by producing food for the future in changing climates.
"We need to be taking steps right now to figure out how we're going to mitigate, how we're going to adapt to a changing climate so that we can meet these food needs," Vilsack said, "everything from avoiding food waste to embracing science."