Reaching Zero Hunger includes more affordable healthy food

Reaching Zero Hunger includes more affordable healthy food

Besides ending hunger, Zero Hunger includes improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture

The tobacco industry sells a product that when used exactly as intended prematurely kills half its users — seven million people every year — as well as indirectly killing a further 1.3 million non-smokers, making it the worst mass killer in human history.

Air pollution from fossil-fuel combustion is ­estimated to kill eight million people annually, but threatens far greater damage as a result of climate change.

So what are we to think about the food industry, when unhealthy diets result in an estimated 11 million deaths annually?

This is according to a comprehensive study ­published in The Lancet in 2019. The authors found “the leading dietary risk factors for mortality are diets high in sodium [salt], low in whole grains, low in fruit, low in nuts and seeds, low in vegetables, and low in omega-3 fatty acids,” and extolled the virtues of “shifting diet from unhealthy animal-based foods (eg., red meat and processed meat) to healthy plant-based foods.”

Now there is no question that the food industry, which is largely in the private sector, is a major ­contributor to health across the world by keeping most of us fed, and mostly fairly well fed.

But there are major problems with our food ­system, both globally and here in Canada, that need to be addressed. At a 2023 UN Food Systems Summit, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated: “Although global food production of calories has kept pace with population growth, the common prioritization of ­quantity and profitability over nutritional value has meant healthy diets remain unaffordable for over 40 per cent of the world’s population.”

Goal 2 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, agreed to by Canada and all the world’s nations in 2015, is Zero Hunger by 2030.

But we are a long way from achieving that goal, and headed in the wrong direction. Addressing the UN Food Systems Summit, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted: “the number of people facing hunger and food insecurity has risen since 2015, exacerbated by the pandemic, conflict, climate change and growing inequalities.”

He reported that “258 million people in 58 countries faced acute food insecurity in 2022, an increase of 34 per cent compared to 2021,” adding that “45 million children suffered from wasting.”

Moreover, projections show that by 2030,

600 million people — 7% of the world’s population — will be ­hungry, he added.

But the Zero Hunger goal is not just about hunger. It is, fully stated, to end hunger, achieve food ­security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable ­agriculture.

The second target under this goal is to end all forms of malnutrition. Now malnutrition takes two main forms that co-exist globally: under-nutrition, when ­people can’t access or afford adequate food, and ­over-nutrition, when their food supply is excessive and unhealthy.

The WHO reported at the summit that “2.4 ­billion people suffer from food insecurity, while 670 ­million adults live with overweight or obesity” and that “478 million children aged under 5 [are] impacted by ­stunting, while 145 million 5-9-year-olds live with ­overweight/obesity.”

Moreover, the production of food is often done in ways that harm the environment. Hence target 4 of the Zero Hunger goal is concerned with creating ­ecologically sustainable food-production systems.

But here, too, we have a long way to go. In his remarks at the summit, Guterres noted that ­“current food systems continue to generate pollution and degrade soil, water and air, contribute to 28 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, are responsible for as much as 80 per cent of biodiversity loss and account for up to 70 per cent of freshwater use.”

The WHO’s director of nutrition and food safety, Dr. Francesco Branca, proposed a three-point agenda for food systems transformation: lower the cost of nutritious foods for consumers, increase the ­availability and affordability of healthy diets, and ensure a fair price for the producer, while reflecting the true costs on environment, health and livelihoods.

While this requires that governments take action on these important steps, it is particularly the ­responsibility of the food industry to stop producing and selling the unhealthy foods that lie behind those 11 million deaths a year, and stop producing food in ­environmentally harmful ways. That will be my focus next week.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

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