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A UK Gold in Food and Nutrition Security

Can the Sustainable Development Goals and Nutrition for Growth summit address Type 2 diabetes at home?

Today’s guest post comes from Robin Hinks, Policy and Research Officer for the Food Foundation. The Food Foundation is an independent think tank that tackles the growing challenges facing the UK’s food system. This post explores the UK’s commitment to tackling malnutrition, and its associated ailments, both at home and overseas. 

Malnutrition – both undernutrition and obesity – affects over half the world’s population.  It harms all countries, driving a global non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic in which Type 2 diabetes features prominently.

In international development, the UK has been at the forefront of raising the importance of good nutrition. The UK’s message to the world has been that good nutrition – particularly during pregnancy and the early years of life – underpins strong economies, and that preventing malnutrition requires cross-government leadership and investment in evidence-based interventions. This international leadership was demonstrated at the Olympic Hunger Event and Nutrition for Growth summit held in London in 2012 and 2013.

Yet the UK’s commitment to improving children’s diets domestically could go much further, though the recent announcement on the sugary drinks levy marks a very positive step in a new direction. Here, responsibilities for healthy diets are disjointed. What we eat is largely seen as an area of private concern rather than public policy and while we have robust regulations on food safety, the same cannot be said for the food environments in which our children are growing up.  As a result diet now poses the greatest threat to the health and survival of British people.

A recent report demonstrates that two thirds of the calories consumed by typical (median-income) households come from highly processed foods; many of which are low in fibre and high in fat, sugar and or salt (HFSS). The diets of children are particularly concerning: 47% of primary school children’s dietary energy comes from HFSS foods, 85% of secondary school children are not eating enough fruit and vegetables, more than 90% are not eating enough fibre and all are eating too much sugar.

These diets have tragic health implications. One in 20 adults now has doctor-diagnosed diabetes, 90% of which is Type 2: The real figure is certainly higher, due to undiagnosed cases. Type 2 diabetes in adolescents began to appear at the start of this century, and there are now an estimated 600 cases.

The UK needs a new, coherent vision for food and nutrition security.  This vision needs to consider the future of our food system and how it can be shaped to deliver healthy diets, as well as diets which have a smaller carbon footprint, while at the same time ensuring those at greatest risk of the poorest diets are protected.   As well as improving life chances, tackling the negative impacts of obesity could deliver economic benefits worth £17billion per year, including an £800m annual saving to the NHS.  Joining-up food policies across the food system – from farming subsidies to advertising regulations offers real opportunities for ensuring policies are mutually reinforcing and not acting against one another to the detriment of consumers’ health.

The second Nutrition for Growth summit, to be convened during the Rio Olympics and Paralympics and involving Heads of State from around the world, provides an opportunity for the UK to progress its leadership on nutrition in international development, but also demonstrate renewed commitment to tackle poor nutrition at home.

The event should be used to lever benefits from the international Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Agreed by the UN General Assembly in 2015, the SDGs provide a framework for national action and international cooperation for all UN Member States for the period up to 2030.  Unlike their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are for all countries of the world, rich and poor.

These goals include a commitment to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.”

The goals should provide the reference point for UK commitments at Rio: acting as a spur for the UK to articulate a new vision of food and nutrition security which delivers access to healthier, affordable and sustainable diets for all, at home and abroad.

On April 13th, an interactive briefing session will let parliamentarians know how they could get more involved in tackling malnutrition and its associated NCDs in the run-up to the Rio Olympics.

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