AKIPRESS.COM - Despite the impacts of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, data and trends of the recent years paint a mostly encouraging picture of the food security and nutrition situation in Europe and Central Asia. The region as a whole is in a much better position than elsewhere in the world, but some developments need to be addressed to avoid setbacks, according to the Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition in Europe and Central Asia.
The report estimates that the prevalence of undernourishment in the world increased to 9.9 percent in 2020 and rose further since then, while the average of the 50-plus countries of Europe and Central Asia has remained below 2.5 percent in recent years. Although in some parts of the region (the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Western Balkans) the share of the population defined as undernourished is growing – and likely to continue doing so – the regional average is expected to remain below 2.5 percent.
After increasing sharply in 2020, the regional prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity increased again in 2021 (from 11.3 percent in 2020 to 12.4 percent in 2021), reflecting a deteriorating situation for people facing serious hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, around 116.3 million people in the region were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021, with 25.5 million added in just two years. The number of severely food insecure people – those who lack regular access to enough safe and nutritious food – was rising fast, increasing by more than 13 million from 2019 to 2021.
On a positive note, in this region, stunting (low height relative to age) and wasting (the consequence of insufficient food intake) affect 7.3 percent and 1.9 percent of children under 5 years of age, respectively, while globally these issues affect more than three times as many people.
Overweight and obesity in the region remains an alarming issue in the region among children and adults alike, surpassing the global average.
The cost of a healthy diet increased in almost all countries of Europe and Central Asia due to higher consumer food prices. Still, with some countries as exceptions, the majority of the people in the region (roughly 96.4 percent) could afford a healthy diet, compared to the world average of 58.0 percent in 2020. However, some lower-middle-income and net-food-importing countries in the region (such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have a very high percentage of their populations (over 40 percent) who were unable to afford a healthy diet.
Ensuring healthy diets and sustainable agrifood systems
The countries of the region have very different levels of development and of budgetary support to the food and agriculture sector. In addition, most countries – especially middle-income countries – are highly affected by the recent regional and global issues and have limited capacity to invest in agrifood systems as a path to overcoming the crisis.
As the report underlines, food and agriculture policies need to be repurposed to make them better suited to addressing the “triple challenge” of current agrifood systems – increasing the affordability of healthy diets, ensuring better livelihoods for farmers, and improving environmental sustainability. This can be achieved if fiscal incentives can reach beyond helping individual farmers and target improvements in general services, including agricultural research and development, education, extension, pest and disease control actions, public food safety control systems, climate-smart agriculture, and emissions-efficient technologies and practices.
By rethinking current agricultural support structures, even the consumption of healthy food commodities – mainly fruits, vegetables and pulses – can be encouraged, suggests the United Nations report.
But not only agricultural policies should be involved when setting the framework for healthier and more sustainable, equitable and efficient agrifood systems. Complementing policies that are outside agrifood systems – including health, social protection, trade and environment – are needed to ensure that repurposing efforts are impactful in the region.
Especially with regard to environmental sustainability and a greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, decision makers are required to think holistically and facilitate the application of science-based, climate-smart and energy-efficient technologies and practices along agrifood value supply chains.