According to the 2020 Global Nutrition Report, one in nine of the world’s population are hungry or undernourished, while one in three is overweight or obese.
Poor diets are not simply a matter of personal food choices, it argued. The report said agriculture systems focus on staple grains like rice, wheat and maize, rather than producing a broader range of more diverse and healthier foods, such as fruits, nuts and vegetables.
Fresh or perishable foods are less accessible and affordable in many parts of the world compared to staple grains. In Burkina Faso, for example, egg calories are 15 times more expensive than calories from staples, whereas they are 1.9 times more expensive in the United States.
Processed foods, especially ultra-processed food, meanwhile, are available, cheap and intensively marketed, with sales high and growing fast in many parts of the world.
The report suggested these changes demand policy and planning resources to promote desirable nutrition outcomes.
The solutions proposed include increased public investment for healthier food products, support for shorter supply chains for fresh-food delivery programmes, use of fiscal instruments such as taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, limiting advertising of junk food, and food reformulation, or the use of front-of-pack labelling to inform consumers.
Renata Micha, co-chair of the report and research associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, told FoodNavigator: "The findings of the report are timely. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our food systems, disproportionately impacting already vulnerable populations.
"Food companies are part of the problem, but they can become part of the solution. Food systems need to change to become more equitable, efficient and sustainable.”
The report added that if no action is taken, the effects of the pandemic will only make it harder for vulnerable populations to protect themselves against malnutrition. It said malnutrition affects our immune system, leaving us more susceptible to infection, and the socio-economic impact of the pandemic could in turn drive malnutrition globally.
“Good nutrition is an essential defence strategy to protect populations against epidemics, relieve the burden on our health systems and ultimately save lives,” said Micha. “The findings of the 2020 Global Nutrition Report make clear that tackling malnutrition should be at the centre of our global health response.”
Making a broader range of more diverse and healthier foods affordable
She urged food companies to embrace innovation in order to produce a broader range of more diverse and healthier foods that was also affordable for the consumer.
"Transforming food systems will require multi-sectoral actions and we always need to keep in mind that food systems need to change to enable access to healthy diets that are at the same time affordable and sustainable,” she said.
“Food companies should not forget that there is increased consumer demand for healthier products and increased recognition that all stakeholders are accountable for healthier diets: it's not simply a matter of personal food choices."
Gerda Verburg, UN Assistant Secretary General, Scaling Up Nutrition Movement Coordinator and member of the GNR’s stakeholder group, said: “2020 must represent a turning point for nutrition. As we look to reinforce our resilience to global stresses, nutrition must become a key component of any emergency or long-term response. Investing in nutrition, renewing and expanding commitments, and strengthening accountability has now become urgent if we want to prepare our systems for future shocks, and avoid a reversal of gain.”