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  • on 18.11.2014
  • at 04:19 PM
  • by evelina

Maria Helena Semedo (FAO): “For an holistic approach on nutrition in Africa” 0

More than 20 years on from the first ever International Conference on Nutrition, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will host this week in Rome the ICN2 gathering heads of state, senior officials and leaders from 192 governments to set a new policy framework to address global malnutrition and feed directly into the new Sustainable Development Goals. 

In an interview with, the Deputy Director General of FAO, Maria Helena Semedo, tells us about the new approach to food systems she believes is needed to fight malnutrition in Africa.

Ms Semedo, until recently, the issue of nutrition has mainly been raised in emergency situations or through sectorial programs focusing primarily on health. Today, some say that malnutrition should be addressed from a multi-sectorial standpoint and assessed from a coordinated and long-term perspective. The next International Conference on Nutrition that will take place in November in Rome is co-organised by the FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO). How far has the FAO involved other UN agencies and international organisations in this conference in order to promote a real multi-sectorial approach on nutrition?

Indeed, nutrition nowadays needs a multi-sectorial and holistic approach as it is linked to health and poverty. The FAO and the WHO are organizing the conference, whereas the steering committee involves several other UN agencies that have participated in the document to be submitted for approval to the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2). Actors from civil society and the private sector are contributing to the discussion in the platforms we have created and in the open working groups. Today we cannot think of malnutrition without having a global view of the food system. It is not a problem of one government but of the whole of society. That’s why we need to include all the actors involved in the process: civil society, the private sector and governments on the one side, producers and consumers on the other. It is really a global effort that we are promoting here at the FAO in order to reach a comprehensive and participatory approach.

Do you have the feeling– especially in Africa – that a more complex and comprehensive approach is being adopted at the government level? For example, two countries – Ethiopia and Niger – hampered by recurrent acute food crises are pioneers in nutrition policies through greater coordination between stakeholders (such as UN agencies, bilateral donors and research institutions). How much is this approach, adopted by Ethiopian and Nigerien governments, a source of inspiration for other African countries?

I started my career at the FAO back in 2003 in Niger. When we had to tackle the famine in 2005, it was considered a problem to be dealt with only by the Ministry of Health. Yet since then the FAO and the World Food Program (WFP) have started urging the government to adopt a holistic approach, including agriculture, health, finance and trade because famines are a problem of poverty and social protection. Not only is this holistic approach necessary, but we also need coordination at the highest level. At the moment in Niger, the coordination is at the Presidential level, with a commissioner who has an understanding of and is responsible for coordinating all the different aspects necessary in tackling food insecurity and malnutrition. In order to achieve this, we need to change our mindset and adopt a different approach. We are doing the same thing at the UN level: not only at the WHO, but also at the FAO, WFP, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement. In the latter, we have around 40 countries adopting a holistic approach to food security and nutrition. This is not the end of the process, but we are on the right track to win the fight against malnutrition.

Do you think that increasing food production and agricultural productivity is enough to overcome malnutrition?

Malnutrition is not a problem of production but of healthy food; it is not about the quantity but about a balanced diet. We need a combination of several products such as vegetables, fruit and proteins. This is the healthy diet we want to promote; we need a nutrition-sensitive production. We see a growing middle class in Africa. What could be the consequences of this growth in terms of malnutrition, with for example, the case of increasing obesity in several African countries?
This is not the only issue, since we also have a problem of urbanization. The figures say that in 20 years’ time, 60-70% of the African population will be living in urban neighborhoods. This will change their diet because they will have access to more resources. We have to be careful about the kind of food system and diet this middle class will adopt. One of the crucial issues is whether they will be eating more meat and fewer vegetables, as they will no longer be producing those vegetables. This is why education and a healthy diet are important. As for the problem of obesity, it does not only affect Africa but is becoming more and more of a global problem. Within the same family in Africa, you can one or two members suffering from obesity or malnutrition, which shows the importance of education and a balanced diet.

Civil society and bodies like the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch have expressed some criticism about recent nutrition global policies, mentioning a potential conflict of interests in multinationals that are increasingly involved in nutritional initiatives in Africa. Today, what are the opportunities and the risks related to the involvement of the private sector and the so-called ‘hidden’ intention to capture new markets?

We need a food systems approach that addresses the entire process, from the farm to the consumer. You have different stages in the process and different actors intervening at each level – the so-called value chain. We know we cannot exclude the private sector from this process, as it is part of it, but we have to defend the different interests of consumers, producers and smallholder farmers. Yet, how can everyone have their interests protected in an integrated approach? That is the challenge: we have to bring all the participants to explore this together and find a different food systems approach.

One month ago, you participated to the annual meeting of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (Glopan) that took place in Brussels. What are the main achievements of Glopan so far?

The global panel for food security was launched two years ago and integrated by eminent personalities, including the director general of the FAO. One of the main responsibilities was to create awareness at government level on nutrition, on the importance of public policies and how they should be linked to the public-private partnerships. In Brussels we have discussed a work plan, spanning until 2016. The United Kingdom launched the meeting, and in 2016 it will be transferred to Brazil. We have also discussed how we can add nutrition-sensitive food security and climate change adaptation to the current challenges. We are now framing the agenda, which will take the form of an advisory panel. Additionally, we will be working on a policy brief for the attention of governments, whose aims is to facilitate policies and the internal dialogue at the country-level. We discussed the linkages with the Sustainable Development Goals process; how we can help raise the issue of nutrition on the development agenda, giving it a crosscutting approach as well as how we can work on a target and indicators that are nutrition-sensitive.

By Joshua Massarenti – Afronline

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