Nutrition literacy, greater market infrastructure investments must for ensuring healthy, sustainable diets in South Asia

To design sustainable food systems for healthy diets within the South Asian region, one needs to take local realities and contexts into account and develop a strong collaboration among all stakeholders at the grassroots, national, regional and global level, write George Cheriyan and Simi T.B. for South Asian Monitor

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Nutrition literacy, greater market infrastructure investments

Food systems in the South Asian region faced enormous challenges in achieving equitable access to a healthy, nutritious, sustainable, and balanced diet for all, even well before the onset of the pandemic. Covid-19 has now put the region further behind in reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and has caused widespread loss of livelihoods and incomes, threatening the food security, health, and nutrition of poor and marginalized people. The situation is so grave that out of the total 768 million undernourished people in the world in 2020, more than half, i.e. 418 million people now live in Asia.

According to the Global Hunger Index 2020, which assesses progress and setbacks in combating hunger across the globe, almost all the South Asian countries rank poorly among the 107 nations, with India ranked the poorest at 94 scoring only 27.2. The country remains within the serious hunger category largely because of poor implementation processes and lack of effective monitoring in tackling malnutrition and poor performance by a few states.

As per the Index, the only positive development seen within the region is with regard to Sri Lanka and Nepal, who have scored 16.3 and 19.5 respectively, thereby coming under a level of hunger that is moderate. It should be noted that according to World Bank, the region accommodates nearly two-fifths of the world's poor.

Food system transformation

Food system transformation therefore must be pursued to overcome the present scenario and achieve the SDGs by 2030. While food production is moving forward in spite of the ongoing health crisis, the share of people exposed to food and nutrition insecurity is high and increasing. Apart from it, the food systems within the region are threatened by deteriorating environmental resources and the negative impact of climate change.

According to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study, food systems around the world are facing a “triple challenge” - they have to ensure food and nutrition security for a growing global population, provide livelihoods for people working in food supply chains, and build environmental sustainability while adapting to and helping to mitigate climate change.

In South Asia, these challenges are amplified by a combination of high vulnerability, the huge importance of food systems in economic growth, and increasing urbanization. Therefore to design sustainable food systems for healthy diets within the region, one needs to take local realities and contexts into account and develop a strong collaboration among all stakeholders at the grassroots, national, regional and global levels.

The upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), to be held during the last week of September 2021, is looked upon with much hope and expectations by the world community. The summit aims to deliver progress on all 17 of the SDGs through a food systems approach, leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty, and inequality, and launch bold new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food, as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

The pre-summit held in July 2021 served as the preparatory meeting for the UNFSS by consolidating all the substantive work of the summit into a common vision and setting a tone of bold ambition and commitment to action.

Consumers International statement

Ahead of the pre-summit gathering, Consumers International (CI) - the London headquartered apex membership organization for consumer groups around the world - worked with consumer advocates in India and Bangladesh to produce a set of policy recommendations for healthy and sustainable diets in South Asia. Six consumer organizations from India and Bangladesh, including CUTS International, were part of the collaborative effort to prepare a joint policy statement and report, which were disseminated during one of the pre-summit sessions. The recommendations largely touched upon key areas like consumer information, marketing, and advertising, food standards, fiscal policy, public procurement and distribution and so on.

As per the report, the first step towards enabling healthy and sustainable diets is making it easy for consumers to understand what they are buying. Governments should therefore make efforts to introduce mandatory front-of-pack ‘high in’ warning labels, allowing consumers to easily identify and avoid products high in unhealthy nutrients and at the same time run national and regional campaigns to educate them.

It also underlines the need for introducing mandatory restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to all consumers under the age of 18, and the requirement to establish effective implementation and enforcement systems with proper sanctions to ensure compliance. This is of significance given that global food brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken are gaining prominence within the region due to rapid urbanization thereby affecting consumer diets and habits. Currently, none of the countries in the region apart from Sri Lanka have a Front-of-pack Labeling (FOPL) system, though India is seriously considering one for the past couple of years.  

The report also underlines the need for South Asian countries to introduce and enforce mandatory restrictions on the use of industrially produced trans-fat and set targets for the reformulation of packaged food high in other unhealthy nutrients such as sugar, salt, and saturated fat. While India has come up with effective legislation recently, limiting not more than 2 percent by January 2022, countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are still considering regulations to implement.
Uncertainty clouds any such policy decision in Nepal, given the lack of information on trans-fat in is food supply.

India is also in the process of introducing consumer-friendly FOPL for easily choosing packed food with high fat, sugar and salt. As street foods are widely prevalent and one of the growing sectors in the region, the countries should also work towards implementing safety standards to improve hygiene practices for street food and promote voluntary certifications for safety and sustainability.

Maintaining nutritional standards

The governments can also introduce taxes on food products that fail to meet nutritional standards and provide subsidies to make healthy and sustainable foods more affordable.

Apart from all this, emphasis should also be on ensuring that sufficient nutrition is available to people in lower socio-economic groups by expanding the food basket under the public distribution system and tackle food loss and wastage by investing in transport and storage infrastructure.

Achieving sustainable and healthy diets thus call for greater attention to nutrition literacy in the region, increased investments in market infrastructure, improved awareness by all actors on the responsibility to provide safe and sustainable foods, efficient public distribution system, improved consumer information tools, and strong enforcement capacity at the level of regulators.

(The writers are director and policy analyst respectively at CUTS International. The views expressed are personal.  They can be reached at gc@cuts.org)