16 November 2014

Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2): Will the real issues be discussed and what can we expect?

The Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) will be held in Rome from 19 to 21 November 2014. More than twenty years after the first International Conference on Nutrition, held in December 1992, the issue of malnutrition remains very worrying even though it has somewhat changed in nature and therefore requires solutions different than those that were proposed then. Indeed, more than half of humanity is malnourished today: around 1 billion do not eat sufficiently, 2 billion suffer from vitamin and micronutrient  deficiencies, and 1.5 billion are overfed. 

A series of commitments to reduce hunger and undernourishment can be found in the 1992 Declaration which tried to tackle problems that limit access to adequate food and are at the origin of diseases that limit assimilation of the food eaten. It also had hope in the development of trade, at the time when trade agreements were being negotiated that were to lead to the creation of the WTO in 1995. At that time, there were just about 200 million less undernourished people than today (estimates at that time, which were since revised, were very close to today’s estimates: 780 million in 1992 against 905 million today), and the number of micronutrient deficient people was comparable. But there was yet no interest for overconsumption of food which was then mostly limited to rich countries, while today it can also be widely observed in poor countries, creating what has been named the ‘‘double burden’’ (undernourishment and overconsumption). The objectives that had then be fixed included:

  1. -Continued access by all people to sufficient supplies of safe foods for a nutritionally adequate diet

  2. -Health and nutritional well-being of all people

  3. -Environmentally sound and socially sustainable development to contribute to improved nutrition and health

  4. -Elimination of famines and famine deaths.

The Declaration that will be approved next week by the Conference, acknowledges that the nutritional situation is the result of a series of factors such as poverty, impossibility of access to a sufficient and adequate diet, inappropriate care practices by people, diseases, socio-economic and environmental change, as well as conflicts and climatic events. It gratifies international trade with a positive role, although it would like it to be more equitable while being market-oriented. On this basis, the Declaration puts forward a number of principles that should guide countries in their struggle in favour of a better nutrition: promotion of a more balanced, healthy and diversified diet; better coordination; refraining from using food as an instrument for exerting political or economic pressure; legislative frameworks for the ‘‘proper use of agrochemicals’’; development of adapted information systems; empowerment of consumers, among others. It also acknowledges the negative consequences of unstable market prices for food and lists a litany of measures that would need to be taken.

Commitments made are on the eradication of hunger and prevention of all forms of malnutrition, reinforcement of sustainable food systems, increased attention to nutrition in strategies, policies, plans of action and relevant national programmes, as well as stronger international cooperation.

The Framework for Action which supports the Declaration presents sixty detailed recommendations on the policies and programmes that need to be put in place in order to create a favourable environment for effective action in favour of nutrition, support to sustainable food systems for healthy diets. These recommendations bear on more than ten domains (trade, investment, education, nutritional information and education, social protection, health services, breastfeeding, wasting, stunting, overweight and obesity, anaemia, water, hygiene, food safety and accountability). Despite this apparent level of detail, recommendations are limited to specific objectives that are set, but they say very little about what the instruments (particularly the policy instruments) to be used to achieve them. Nothing is said concretely on what should be done to encourage sustainable production of healthy products (and what should be done to discourage unsustainable production of unhealthy products...).

It is quite clear that the ‘‘high mass’’ that will be held in Rome next week will adopt a declaration and plan of action that are essentially based on principles resting on a very technical diagnosis of the world nutritional situation, and will lack the specificity required to be effective.

One could have expected however that these documents analysed clearly what has really changed in the world food system since 1992, in particular the extraordinary development of international trade linked to the displacement of production and processing of food, the increasingly rapid industrialisation and concentration of the production, processing and marketing of food in the hands of a small number of large private groups which makes that these giant firms effectively now control the food system while dictating its rules and flood the market with processed food rich in fat, sugar, salt and various additives the effects of which on consumer health are not well known. On all this, nothing or very little, and certainly nothing in the declaration or plan of action that might ensure that actions taken by countries will really have the expected effect, as they are far from being the main force shaping the world food system today. Nothing either on the numerous inequitable trade agreements or the need to invest in family farms (were are in the last days of the International Year of Family Farming!)

In the days preceding the Conference, there will be meetings of civil society (on 17 and 18 November), of parliamentarians (18 November) and private sector (18 November). Civil society has strongly - and rightly so - criticised the fact that civil society and private sector were put on the same level in the Conference process, believing that it is not acceptable to put at par hundreds of millions of victims of the world food system and those who pull the threads and capture benefits from it. The private sector requested that its role be better recognised in food fortification (through food complements produced by the industry) and that public-private partnerships should be more encouraged in the food sector. The meetings will help these three groups to fine tune their declarations to the Conference.

So, what can we expect from next week’s Conference other than pledges that are likely not to be respected, simply because the real dynamics within the world food system are above the national level?

Probably very little, if not some success in putting back on the forefront of the agenda the issue of nutrition, and sensitising all, governments as well as the public, on the question of health and nutrition.

It will be very interesting to see how many Heads of State will be present at the Conference, and in particular how many of the Heads of State of the G20 Group who just met in Australia will actually stop by in Rome. This will certainly be a very good indicator of the real importance of this Conference.


Further readings:

  1. -Website of the Conference

  2. -Facts and figures on world hunger

  3. -International trade in agricultural commodities


Last update:    November 2014

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