Building a narrative around sustainable healthy diets: launch of two UN Nutrition discussion papers

Promoting good nutrition, health and sustainable food systems in the context of population growth, dietary transition and a changing climate is a central challenge of our time. In addition to this, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of our food systems, with numbers of people affected by at least one form of malnutrition rapidly increasing.  Climate change affects our diets by influencing, for example, food production and access to food (droughts or flooding damage harvests reducing quantities of food available and increasing prices), but at the same time, our food systems (and therefore our diets) also affect climate change, producing  up to 30% of global greenhouse gases emissions (Global Panel, 2020).

However, despite growing recognition of the importance of sustainable healthy diets, there is still no agreement among stakeholders on this concept (as also demonstrated by the negotiations on the CFS Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition). To contribute to the narrative around sustainable healthy diets, UN Nutrition published two discussion papers in the first semester of 2021: “Aquatic food and their role in sustainable healthy diets” and “Livestock-derived foods and sustainable healthy diets”.

The UN Nutrition discussion paper on The role of aquatic foods in sustainable healthy diets highlights the potential of aquatic foods in ensuring human and planetary health and presents the breadth of evidence available to inform and steer policy, consumption and investments

The authors explore how aquatic foods, including aquatic plants, contribute to equitable nutritional benefits while maintaining the health of the planet, and presents a number of strategies such as, shifting consumer behavior, ensuring the sustainability of production systems, reducing loss and waste in aquatic food supply chains, and improving the governance of aquatic resources for food and nutrition security.

One of the main authors of the paper, Molly Ahern, Food Security and Nutrition Specialist in the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Division states:

Aquatic foods include a diverse group of animals, plants and microorganisms, each with unique qualities and nutrients, such as iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, vitamins A, B12 and D, and omega-3 fatty acids which are important for physical and cognitive development particularly during the first 1 000 days (from conception to the child’s 2nd birthday), as well as throughout life for proper growth and functioning. We should make much better use of this diversity instead of focusing fisheries, nutrition, and trade policies and consumption on few commercial species.

The paper was launched online on 7th of May 2021. The event was opened by the UN Nutrition chair, Dr Naoko Yamamoto, followed by a keynote speech by Dr. Gareth Johnstone, Director General of WorldFish. After a short presentation of the paper by its two main authors, Molly Ahern (FAO) and Shakuntala Thilsted (WorldFish), the panel reacted to the main findings of the report and shared insights from different contexts. The CFS Chair, Mr Thanawat Tiensin, discussed the linkages between the recommendations of the paper and the work done by CFS, in particular the recently adopted Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition. Ms. Kefilwe Moalosi from AUDA-NEPAD, focused on policies and investments needed to boost the sustainable local supply and consumption of aquatic foods; Richard Abila, Senior Technical Specialist in Fisheries and Aquaculture at IFAD, presented IFAD’s programmes of loans and grants to support activities related to the aquatic food sector, stressing the importance of supporting governments in prioritizing aquatic resources. Fatiha Terki, WFP Country Director in Senegal, presented the WFP Senegal’s Suisankanzume Initiative, using aquatic foods in school feeding programmes for the benefit of 310 schools in 4 regions of Senegal. Finally, Anita Utheim Iversen, lead of the Global Action Network Food from the Ocean and Inland Waters for Food Security and Nutrition, discussed synergies between the Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025) and the Decade of Oceans Science (2021-2030) and the importance of cross sectorial collaboration.

Aquatic foods are a central part of a holistic transformation of food, land and water systems for healthy and resilient diets that work for both people and planet. This essential but often overlooked role of aquatic food systems must be integrated into game-changing solutions across the five action tracks of the UN Food Systems Summit.

said Dr. Shakuntala Thilsted, WorldFish Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health and Vice-Chair of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 Action Track 4: Advance Equitable Livelihoods. A few days after the launch, Dr Thilsted was named the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate for her groundbreaking research, critical insights, and landmark innovations in developing holistic, nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems, including fisheries and aquaculture.  

The second discussion paper focuses on Livestock-derived foods and sustainable healthy diets, unpacking the health and nutrition implications of livestock-derived foods in sustainable healthy diets and exploring the interface between livestock-derived foods, human health and the environment. The analysis recognizes that the role of livestock-derived foods in sustainable healthy diets is complex and vary depending on the context, time of life, commodity and production methods, highlighting a need to rebalance consumption and adapt production practices to safeguard human, animal and planetary health. To achieve sustainable healthy diets for all, any consideration of livestock-derived foods must take into account evidence-based, integrated solutions that incorporate diversity and equity.

The paper was launched on 9th of June 2021 in the context of the WHO Health talks in contribution to the Food Systems Summit Dialogues. The UN Nutrition chair opened the event stressing the importance of reading the two papers together to better understand the concept of sustainable healthy diets.

Let’s continue to diversify our diets, recognizing the linkages between animal, human and environmental health”,

said Jimmy Smith, Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in its keynote intervention.

That’s how we find our way to more sustainable, healthy diets, including for the two billion undernourished people today who could greatly benefit from regular access to modest amounts of milk, meat or eggs.

Lora Iannotti, Associate Professor at the Washington University of St. Louis and main author of the paper, presented the main findings, focusing on the importance of sustainable, mixed production systems to safeguard human, animal, and planetary health. The panel discussion offered a wide range of perspectives from UN agencies, to the youth and the private sector. Joyce Njoro, Lead Technical Nutrition Specialist at IFAD shared insights from the work underway in IFAD to mainstream nutrition in livestock-related programmes, followed by Grainne Moloney, Senior Advisor on Early Childhood Nutrition in UNICEF, who discussed the importance of livestock-derived foods in complementary feeding and shared insights from UNICEF’s programmes in Kenya and Nigeria. Emma Naluyima Mugerwa, an award-winning innovative farmer, brought us all to her farm in Uganda, One Acre Limited, showing us the importance of livestock as foods and as a means to produce other foods. Lana Weidgenant, a young activist from Brazil and Youth Vice-Chair of UN Food Systems Summit Action Track 2, talked about the role of youth in foods systems transformation, including the efforts to shift to sustainable consumption patterns. The last speaker, Martina Otto, Head of the Cities Unit at UN Environment, reminded us that the entire global food system needs to be transformed in line with the One Health approach and invited everyone, being all food consumers, to take our own responsibility and ‘vote with our forks’.

Both events ended with a lively and exciting Q&A session, showing the relevance of these discussions and the growing interest around the topic of sustainable healthy diets. More discussion and more research around the broad range of animal-source foods and aquatic plants is strongly needed to build consensus and support policymaking, with greater attention to contexts and ensuring all relevant stakeholders are involved.

Sustainable healthy diets are central for preserving the wellbeing of people, animals and ecosystems while leaving no one behind.

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