August 5, 2014

Food, Agriculture, Health, and Nutrition: the emergence of transformative movements

By David Nabarro, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General For Food Security and Nutrition

This blog post is drawn from a presentation at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum on May 27th, 2014. Select excerpts from that presentation appear below. For the full text, please visit the Zero Hunger Challenge blog.

There is growing recognition that modern eating patterns, particularly excessive consumption of energy-rich foods such as fats and sugars, can contribute to non-communicable diseases and that diet-related ill-health is increasing rapidly throughout the world. The demands of the modern diet also contribute to unsustainable agricultural practices. During 2014 it has become evident that the food security of millions of people is already threatened by changing climates and that agriculture and land use changes contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

The links between the foods people eat, their risks of ill-health, and the environmental and climate impact of food production practices are the focus of the EAT Forum, which seeks to encourage future patterns of consumption that are both healthy and sustainable.

The starting point is the recognition by all that transformations in policies and practices require changed values, popular momentum, and the engagement of multiple actors in order to stimulate the necessary political commitment and accountability. But are there techniques for doing this? What can be learnt from other Movements that are already happening?

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A transformative Movement has specific goals which are pursued by a range of different organizations: it exhibits continuity because the organizations choose to work together, often without formal structures of adherence. Indeed, under the broad banner of the Movement, the individual organizations may operate in independent ways: they exercise influence that is greater than the sum of their constituents by working together. The greater the coherence between its members is, the stronger the Movement.

In recent years, many groups have worked hard to align their efforts and synergize their actions against hunger and malnutrition, as well as for food security. Since 2010, 52 countries have joined the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, initiated by multiple actors for the scale-up of effective multi-sectoral actions to enable all people to enjoy good nutrition.

In 2012, governments, civil society groups, a high level panel of experts, and the United Nations System were articulating visions of a world without hunger and malnutrition: one expression of this was the Zero Hunger Challenge of the United Nations Secretary-General. This built on the work of the Committee on World Food Security and the UN system’s High Level Task Force on Food Security, which had developed new comprehensive strategies for food and nutrition security that combined both immediate responses to acute need and longer-term action to address structural causes, within the context of enabling people to realize their right to adequate food.

The vision of Zero Hunger has informed debates about possible goals and targets for food security and nutrition in the post-2015 agenda, initiated by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio + 20) located in Rio de Janiero in June 2012. This is an ambitious and exciting process led by governments that also involves multiple actors from civil society, business, and scientific communities.

Recently, another group of actors has focused on the relationship between changing climates, food, and agriculture, and is exploring the options for establishing an alliance to encourage widespread adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices.

These multi-stakeholder movements have a number of common features. First, they share a vision that is easily accessible and clear to a large number of potential participants; usually they arise in response to specific challenges to human development that need equitable, multi-sectoral responses. Second, all who want to be a part of the effort are ready to “come on in,” accepting that not all who are engaged will have the same perspectives and intentions. Third, they agree on the need for aspirational outcomes and on metrics for collective monitoring of progress by different actors.

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The mindset matters. Traditionally, those who seek to encourage healthy behaviours have sought ways to tell people that if they want to live longer, healthier, and happier lives, they must change what they do. An alternative is to recognize that people do not do what they are told to do, even if they know it is good for them: those who seek transformation need to seek ways to help people decide for themselves that they want to change what they do. This means being catalysts that help people see that change is right, fun, and worthwhile.

The journey involves each of us stepping out of our comfort zones, working with our own and others’ emotions, listening to everyone else’s viewpoints and avoiding being stuck in our own professional straightjackets. Our ambition is to widen the critical mass of people working on the issue and engaging with new forces. This is important: it means not just talking with, or working with, those who agree with us. There is no point in just preaching to the converted.

Let us learn from the experience of others – a movement on “food systems for sustainable healthy diets” could move ahead more efficiently if it draws on recent experience. The EAT Stockholm Forum is focusing on how world food and agriculture systems, and the diets people eat, can make better contributions to people’s health, farmer livelihoods and the future of our planet. No government, scientist, farmer group and food business can afford not to focus – and act – on these links.

Dr. David Nabarro is the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Food Security and Nutrition and the Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement. He has also served since 2005 as Senior UN System Coordinator for Avian and Pandemic Influenza.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.