Malnutrition, undernutrition and obesity are global issues: we discussed food sustainability with Professor Maria Rosaria Gualano, lecturer in Hygiene at UniCamillus.
Today, 16 October 2023, FAO celebrates its 78th anniversary, and to honour this date and the noble intention of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Food Day was established.
In November 1979, the 20th Session of the FAO Conference invited Member States to observe World Food Day, and just two years later, the United Nations General Assembly urged governments and local and international institutions to play an active role in raising awareness on 16th October and providing information on the closely related issues of food, malnutrition and hunger around the world.
More than a billion people work in the agri-food sector, producing an enormous amount of food. Yet 40% of the world’s population (more than 3 billion people) suffer from hunger and/or malnutrition. On the other hand, in the Western World, industrialised countries waste more than 17% of the food they consume.
It is clear ‒ and sad ‒ that the current agri-food system is far from being “sustainable”, where this term refers to the possibility for everyone to have access to sufficient, nutritious and healthy food, even in times of crisis. This possibility exists in theory but is not a reality in practice.
But what are the links between food and sustainability? Is it only a matter of global policy decisions, or can we also do something at the individual level?
Sustainability and nutrition: how are they linked?
“The link between sustainability and nutrition is connected to the concept that human health is closely linked to the health of all other living species on our planet. We, Homo sapiens, are not the only inhabitants of the Earth and we must learn to relate to our environment. Our food comes from what exists in our environment, and if this relationship is not properly developed, the long-term consequences could be catastrophic. Just think of the countless species of animals that have gone extinct, or the health of forests and oceans, which, if left unchecked, will directly threaten our very existence. There is no human health without the health of the planet we live on.”
What are the key global nutrition issues and how can sustainability help address them?
“Malnutrition in different countries around the world ‒ both over- and under-nutrition ‒ is the main global problem, and sustainable nutrition certainly helps to address many situations by reducing both obesity and malnutrition, as well as many nutritional deficiency states. There is also a risk of continuing to harm the planet by proposing unsustainable lifestyles and diets. However, it is important to consider that there is also a risk of creating additional inequalities: healthy lifestyles are sometimes more expensive to maintain. So-called junk food is often cheaper than healthy, organic and ‘ethical’ products, which are often more expensive and not affordable for everyone. This is why sustainability must also be supported at the level of public health and economic policy.”
Can you explain the concept of “food sustainability” and how it can contribute to improving human health and the environment?
“Food and nutrition sustainability is essentially linked to concepts such as biodiversity protection, low environmental impact of food, food safety and waste reduction, all of which are crucial elements to ensure a better impact of our food production system on the environment: rather than blindly exploiting it, we should aim to preserve its vital characteristics. All this could ensure better well-being and health.”
How do individual food choices affect global sustainability?
“Each of us can make their own contribution and set a good example for those around us. Creating a system in which everyone is engaged creates a virtuous circle and facilitates the transition to a sustainable production model and a ‘circular economy’.”
What sustainable changes can we make in our daily practice?
“First of all, we can reduce food waste: it is important to plan a weekly shopping list and menu based on what we will eat, without overdoing the portions. To eat sustainably, we should also remember to eat seasonal food whenever possible. And pay attention to plastic packaging: it is better to avoid it or at least reduce its use.”
UniCamillus offers an MSc in Human Nutrition Sciences: what do students learn about food sustainability?
“The concepts mentioned in this interview are repeated in our Master’s programme. For example, in my Hygiene course, we refer to the concept of health as well-being linked to the state of the environment that surrounds and influences us. It is important that students, as well as future health professionals, are aware of this and have evidence-based information to support these ideas, just as they are taught.”
Speaking of sustainability, UniCamillus has recently joined RUS (Rete di Università Sostenibili), a network of sustainable universities: what are the projects related to nutrition?
“Given the University’s clear humanitarian mission, the projects that will be developed will undoubtedly be related to the theme of health education and promotion, aimed at reducing existing global inequalities.”
For those who want to know more about the important events organised on this day, we recommend reading the dedicated page on the FAO’s website.