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INTERNATIONAL

FAO report highlights food insecurity transition in Europe, Central Asia
Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Budapest
Economic growth and rising per capita incomes have all but wiped out hunger in Europe and Central Asia. But as countries are becoming more affluent, changing consumption patterns are giving rise to other health threats. This food insecurity transition has been documented in a new report released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Titled Regional Overview of Food Insecurity: Europe and Central Asia, it analysed a wealth of country data on dietary energy supply, undernourishment indicators such as stunting and wasting, anaemia, overweight and obesity, and what people on average are eating.

The report pointed to a pattern whereby countries progress from dealing predominantly with undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, to coping with degenerative diseases associated with increased dietary fat, sugar, meat, dairy and processed foods. This transition is often accompanied by a sedentary lifestyle.

“As we trace the structure of diets as incomes increase, we find that the portion of total calories derived from sweeteners, vegetable oils and animal products increases, while that derived from cereals declines. There are important nuances, but the general tendency is clear,” said David Sedik, economist, FAO, and author of the report.

In other words, the data show a progression towards a diet high in sweeteners and vegetable and animal fats and low in grains.

This means that undernutrition issues have largely been overcome in the region - a stunning achievement. Only seven per cent of the population in Europe and Central Asia live in countries where the predominant nutrition problems are undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.

However, malnutrition caused by deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron, vitamin A and zinc, and overnutrition issues measured by overweight and obesity, have remained and increased. Today, 13 per cent of the population of the region lives in countries suffering from the triple burden of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overnutrition.

More worryingly, 57 per cent of the region’s population lives in countries where the main nutrition problem is overnutrition. According to the report, 70 per cent of the population in the region suffers from malnutrition characterised predominantly by a triple malnutrition burden or by overnutrition.

However, the situation is not static. Countries in the undernutrition group are on track to join the triple-burden category in the years ahead.

“As more countries transition into the triple-burden category, health expenditures will need to rise rapidly and substantially to deal with the higher healthcare costs associated with more diabetes, heart disease, and other diet-related non-communicable diseases,” Sedik said.

While the first part of the report presents the problem, the second part is devoted to solutions. It explores several promising policies for addressing, and eventually eradicating, food insecurity, tailored to the income and nutrition profile of each country. These are policies that have been tried and proven effective.

Food fortification is offered as a policy option for countries in the undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies grouping. The fortification of milk with vitamin D, salt with iodine and wheat flour with iron, folic acid and thiamine are examples of this approach, which has been a critical driver of improvements in micronutrient consumption in children in Central Asia. Similarly, bio-fortification uses plant breeding to increase the micronutrient content of crops. Bio-fortified crops could be used to offset the relatively low micronutrient content of wheat in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where cereals supply more than 50 per cent of dietary energy.

Other policy recommendations include:
•    Reformulating popular convenience foods to improve their nutritional value
•    Taxes and subsidies designed to change the relative prices of foods depending on their healthfulness
•    Nutrition education to inform people on what constitutes a healthy, balanced diet
•    More effective food safety systems, and standardisation of food safety, sanitary, phytosanitary and hygiene regulations
•    Better nutritional labelling of food products
•    Food assistance programmes, including vouchers and food subsidy programmes, food transfer and cash transfer programmes

“In this region, the Central Asian and Caucasus countries, in particular, have made tremendous progress in reducing undernourishment,” said Vladimir Rakhmanin, assistant director general and regional representative, Europe and Central Asia, FAO.

“But today, we need to think beyond whether people are consuming enough calories. A balanced, health-promoting diet is what we want to ensure,” he added.
 
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