Among the First International Conferences
to Address Simultaneously
“The Dual Global Challenges of
Malnutrition and Obesity”
Catherine Bertini, 2003 World Food Prize Laureate and Chair of the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition stated:
“The co-existence of underweight and overweight in an increasing number of developing country settings widens the scope of nutrition problems and poses one of the greatest challenges to nutritionists, health workers, and national policy-makers in this new millennium.”
Never has humanity seen such a rich variety of available food, yet millions lack the proper nourishment to assure a healthy life. While the number of hungry and undernourished has slightly decreased to 1.1 billion people, the number of overweight and overnourished has grown to 1.1 billion. Rather than eliminating malnutrition, the past century has witnessed its growth in unprecedented proportions.
In this time of unparalleled global prosperity, the challenge exists not only to feed a growing population, but to feed it well. As the number of obese and overweight people surges to rival the number of hungry, the scope of nutrition problems has widened beyond geographic and economic boundaries. This transition poses a significant threat to public health in the 21st century and forces us to take a critical view of our current food system.
The World Health Organization has estimated that by the year 2030 malnutrition and obesity will be the number one killer of people around the world. These dynamics can be attributed to a nutritional transition that resulted from industrial development and economic growth in the 20th century. As items such as meat, milk, cheese and sugar increased in availability, families began over-consuming these once reserved foodstuffs, and traditional diets featuring grains and vegetables were replaced with diets heavy in fat and processed starches.
Not limited to fast-food loving Westerners, an increasing number of children and adults in developing countries now face this emerging health crisis. Today, more than 115 million people in the developing world struggle with obesity-related ailments. A rise in urban populations – which expend less energy and are exposed to more calorie-dense foods – has exacerbated the problem. As more women work away from the home, patterns in food preparation have also changed, including a heavier reliance on nutritionally-limited processed and convenience foods.
While economic growth has promoted an increase in food consumption, it has also promoted inequality. The wealthy overconsume foods of little nutritional value while millions of poor remain undernourished and chronically hungry. As nutrient deficiencies suppress the immune system and promote disease affliction, the undernourished and overweight suffer alike. A decline in life expectancy and concomitant rise in the incidence of cancer, childhood blindness, heart disease, mental retardation and diabetes have thus amplified the public health burden. While the adverse effects of illness related to overconsumption and obesity can often be alleviated through diet and lifestyle change, the effects of undernourishment are often irreversible.
The existence of hunger in a world of plenty cannot be only attributed to a shortage of food, but also to inequitable distribution due to poverty and discrimination. Overnourishment and obesity similarly highlight a societal failure to adequately address the dietary needs of an increasingly urban and sedentary global population.
To address these issues, on October 12-14, the World Food Prize is gathering in Des Moines an exceptional array of international policymakers, scientists, medical specialists and business leaders to discuss these crucial issues.