Summit Needs to Restore Control of Our Food Systems to Local Producers and Communities

Home-cooked food is a serious matter in the Middle East and family mealtimes are sacrosanct. We are known for our hospitality. We go all out for our guests. People have strong and definite opinions about food, and family recipes are secrets handed down from generation to generation.

 As a child, I took our cuisine for granted, and it was not until I studied abroad that I realized how lucky I was to have been brought up on such healthy and varied cuisine – fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits, and grains, all locally produced. 

As kids, vegetables and fruits were our only go-to snacks. I grew up with a love and passion for healthy satisfying food and have tried to pass the essentials for healthy eating on to my own children.

 Not everyone has access to such healthy food from a young age. Right now, there are more than 800 million people around the world who are affected by hunger each day. And three billion people in mostly low-and middle-income countries do not have access to healthy diets. The COVID-19 pandemic has regrettably increased food insecurity.  Malnutrition in children in 2020 climbed to over 149 million in under five-year old’s affected by a lack of healthy, consistent meals. A tragedy.

Transnational food corporations exploit pandemic

COVID-19 has brought new urgency to the need to reform our food system and our food environments. Nonetheless, transnational food and beverage corporations are taking advantage of the pandemic to further their own commercial interests. They are also using their marketing power to drive us towards unhealthy ultra-processed products like sugar-laden candy and salty chips.

Unlike eggs, vegetables, or fish, ultra-processed products have at least five added ingredients, including additives, colours, or preservatives, and go through multiple manufacturing processes. 

Familiar examples include sugary drinks, potato chips, ice cream and cookies. Some not-so-obvious examples include breakfast cereals, energy bars, infant milk formulas, and fruit yogurts – food that is high in sodium or sugar.

The deck is stacked against parents wanting to encourage their children to adopt healthier eating habits. Ultra-processed products are intensely marketed directly to children on TV and online. Even the packaging is designed to attract children. When parents are shopping with children in tow, they often find themselves pestered to buy unhealthy products.

Packaged food is replacing traditional food

Ultra-processed food consumption is on the rise, particularly in countries where many people are burdened by decades of malnutrition. Packaged foods are replacing locally produced foods and small enterprises, while large private companies have pushed for more investments in the production of sugary beverages and industrialized foods. These initiatives have resulted in undernutrition, stunted growth, and obesity, and can contribute to noncommunicable diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Brazil is a country with a wealth of diverse fruits and vegetables but over 60% of adults are overweight. To begin to counter this, Vital Strategies’ Food Policy program and its partners have launched a new dietary guidelines campaign in Brazil to encourage families to download and use the guidelines.

In a world where unhealthy diets are estimated to be responsible for 11 million preventable deaths each year, we need effective global regulatory action. The good news: After a decade of lessons learned and global best practices, Vital Strategies has focused on four policy areas that are key to making diets healthier:

  • Increasing taxes on sugary drinks and junks food
  • Championing clear, simple front-of-package labelling on food and beverage products;
  • Improving nutrition in schools and other public institutions
  • Supporting marketing restrictions on unhealthy foods, especially to children.

Taxation works

The single most effective of these policies is taxing sugary beverages. Taxes not only discourage consumers from buying sugary drinks but can also provide governments with much-needed revenue.

 In 2018, South Africa implemented a roughly 10% tax on sugary drinks, which is expected to generate $400 million each year while also saving the government $130 million per year in health care costs, averting an estimated 8,000 premature deaths over 20 years. Moreover, the health-related benefits are estimated to be greater among lower-income South Africans. 

This week’s UN Food Systems Summit will try to address some of these issues, and advance an agenda for UN Sustainable Development Goal Two that focuses on an approach to food that is more equitable, inclusive, and respectful of the rights of local farmers and indigenous people. 

Ideally, the summit will bring some attention to the difficult work of wresting control of our food systems away from profit-driven corporations and return it to local food producers and communities. But many have criticised summit organisers for falling short on these essential issues while cosying up to private interests.

Our approach to food policy, and especially ultra-processed products must enable governments to empower people, especially women, with access to healthy foods at lower costs, and nutrition education. The science is clear, the tools are available, and the benefits are obvious. It’s high time for governments to put people before profits. Let’s not hesitate.

Her Royal Highness Princess Dina Mired of Jordan serves as Special Envoy for Noncommunicable Diseases at Vital Strategies. She was a recipient of this year’s World Health Organization (WHO) World No Tobacco Day award for her work to fight tobacco and NCDs across the globe.

Princess Dina Mired


Image Credits: Ashley Green / Unsplash.

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