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Global meet on malnutrition urges governments to broaden purview of nutrition policy to address basic causes of malnutrition

Three-day meet on double burden of malnutrition concludes with experts suggesting policy changes and making recommendations to governments to tackle the issues of undernutrition and obesity plaguing populations across different countries

The three-day conference on ‘Critical Public Health Consequences of the Double Burden of Malnutrition and the Changing Food Environment in South and South East Asia’ that concluded on Friday urged governments across the world to broaden the purview of nutrition policy that simultaneously addresses immediate as well as basic causes of malnutrition.

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The last day of the conference saw the presence of, Prof. T Sundararaman, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Dr. Sunita Narain, Centre for Science & Environment and other eminent speakers.

While countries in South and South East Asia have some of the highest levels of undernutrition, the region is also seeing a swift transition to a new situation termed as ‘double burden of malnutrition’ — whereby gains related to reduction in under-nutrition, are being undermined by an increase in overweight and obesity. This and several other issues related to nutrition was discussed by eminent speakers and government officials from a host of countries. Around 300 people including researchers, activists, practitioners and policy makers from 13 countries and more than 20 states in India converged at the international meet held under the auspices of Public Health Resource Network (PHRN), People’s Health Movement (PHM-Global), Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (PHM-India), World Public Health Nutrition Association (WPHNA), NarotamSekhsaria Foundation (NSF), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI).

Over five plenary sessions and 13 workshops, global campaigns, studies and experiences were shared, including those from specific countries like Brazil, Afghanistan, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, Mexico, South Africa, Malaysia and India. The workshops covered a host of issues from agricultural crisis to women’s labour, livelihood and nutrition, law, policies, programmes at national and global levels, conflicts of interest, culture and indigenous knowledge, scientific evidence on undernutrition, overnutrition, NCDs, management of acute malnutrition along with the role community mobilisation and networking among campaigns at local, national and international levels. The role and responsibility of the state and public policy in addressing these structural factors was emphasized.

The Conference pointed that governments across the world need to bring in a multi-sectoral approach that simultaneously addresses immediate as well as basic causes of malnutrition. Interventions for addressing the double burden of malnutrition must be rooted in an approach that ensures equitable food systems. It also expressed concern over processed foods taking over local foods for which governments need to introduce health-oriented fiscal policies and strong advertising and marketing regulations.

Experts expressed concern that the move towards privatisation of health and nutrition services needs to be resisted and public procurement and distribution programmes such as the PDS, ICDS, MDM must be designed in a manner where they encourage local production and consumption of locally available diverse foods. The Conference demanded guidelines and legal measures to prohibit participation of food corporates in public policy making and programme implementation to avoid conflict of interest.

Over the issue of Breast milk substitutes, experts asked for the International Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes and World Health Assembly resolutions to be effectively implemented to protect breastfeeding from the commercial influence of baby food manufacturers. Effective legal measures were also called upon to regulate promotion of the Ultra Process Foods to children to check increasing use of these unhealthy foods causing obesity.

The conference also asked for a focus on women’s social, economic and biological roles to be recognized as being central to food and nutrition security and that nutrition policies have to empower women to retain and strengthen control over their resources and food environments. It pointed out that addressing gender discrimination in food, education, mobility, access to resources and bodily integrity is critical to sustainable nutritional security.

Given the commonality of the problems faced across South and South East Asia, and the potential for learning from each other, the conference suggested an urgent need to re-initiate the South Asia Right to Food and Nutrition Movement. At the end of the three-day meet, experts reiterated the need for a human rights approach to nutrition — an approach which recognizes fundamental rights of people and puts people rather than profits at the centre of all policies and interventions.

Leni Chaudhari, Vice President, Narotam Sekhsaria Foundation said, “At the moment, governments of different countries from across the world need to widen the purview of their nutrition policy so as to address the various causes that lead to malnutrition. Interventions for addressing the double burden of malnutrition must be rooted in an approach that ensures equitable food systems.”

Echoing her thoughts Dr. Vandana Prasad, National Convener, Public Health Resource Network, said, “Countries need to focus on achieving nutrition sensitive public policy. Pro-poor public policies that contribute to more equitable income and resource distribution, decline in absolute poverty and universal access to social services are some of the measures that are central to achieve improvements in undernutrition.”

Dr. Arun Gupta, Regional Coordinator, International Baby Food Action Network – Asia, said, “We need closer co-ordination between other social movements working on land, forests, water, women’s rights, trade unions, informal workers to extend the reach of the discourse on the right to food and nutrition. Eradication of malnutrition is a concern of different countries across the world.”

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