The UN's food agency said obesity and poor nutrition weigh heavily
on the global economy and told governments that investing in food health would
bring big economic as well as social returns.
Lost productivity and spiralling health care bills linked to obesity cost the
world economy around $1.4 trillion a year (1.1 trillion Euro), the Food and
Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.
Improving nutrition would boost earnings, "with a benefit-to-cost ratio of
almost 13 to 1," it said, adding that some 1.4 billion people in the world are
now overweight and a third of them are obese.
Good nutrition is important
The FAO underlined that while there had been some progress in reducing hunger
rates around the world, the problem of improving nutrition was still treated as
a low priority by many countries.
"We must strive for nothing less than the eradication of hunger and
malnutrition," FAO director Jose Graziano da Silva said in a video message at
the presentation of the report in Rome.
"The development community is paying more and more attention to
malnutrition," he said.
Assistant director general Jomo Sundaram told AFP: "It may be possible to
eradicate hunger in the sense of not enough calories, but it is much more
difficult to improve nutrition."
In its yearly report, the Rome-based agency found 12.5% of the world's
population - or 868 million people - are still undernourished, while 26% of
children are stunted by malnutrition.
A rapid rise in obesity is being seen in the associated costs in low- and
middle-income countries, it said, pointing out that the highest obesity rates in
the world were now in Mexico.
FAO officials said the problem is a complex one and some countries have both
under-nourishment and obesity problems, calling for more "dietary diversity" and
agricultural systems that are not oriented solely to production of cereals.
"Other nutrient-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and eggs should
come into the picture as key items for which productivity should be increased,"
said Kostas Stamoulis, director of the FAO's agricultural department economics
'Better nutrition, reverse obesity'
FAO said rising urbanisation, sedentary lifestyles and the increased
availability of packaged foods meant policy-makers faced significant challenges
in bettering nutrition and reversing obesity.
But "the returns are high," it said.
"Investing in the reduction of micro nutrient deficiencies, for example,
would result in better health, fewer child deaths and increased future
earnings," it said.
The costs of under nutrition are estimated at 2 - 3% of global
GDP, equivalent to $1.4 to $2.1 trillion per year, the FAO said.
The agency urged global leaders to enhance nutrition - in part through
agricultural policies - and promote behavioural change through education.
"Agricultural research and development priorities must be made more
nutrition-sensitive, with a stronger focus on nutrient-dense foods such as
fruits, vegetables, legumes and animal-source foods," it said.
Proposals for better agricultural policies on nutrition include changes in
production "up to the farm gate", with micro nutrient fertilisers, bio-fortified
crops and crop and livestock diversification.
Governments could also help consumers through subsidies, targeted food
assistance for at-risk groups such as children and the elderly, and better
product labelling to help shoppers choose more nutritious food.