ROME, ITALY — Feeding the world must go hand in hand with nurturing the planet, said Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva.

During his talk at the Caritas Internationalis’ General Assembly in Rome he said action is needed on three main fronts to end hunger and poverty.

First, it will be necessary to build the resilience of rural communities in conflict areas. Next, he called for promoting the adaptation of family farmers to the impacts of climate change and finally, mitigating economic slowdowns through social safety nets and public policies.

Graziano da Silva also expressed his concern about the rising prevalence of obesity and the deficiency of micronutrients.

“Nowadays, a more complex nutrition problem looms large: more than 2 billion people are overweight, of which 670 million people are obese," he said.

He warned that the number of obese people in the world would very soon overtake the number of people suffering from hunger, which accounted for 821 million in 2017 — this already has happened in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2015.

The FAO chief noted that while hunger is circumscribed to specific areas, particularly in conflict zones and areas affected by climate change, obesity is everywhere.

“We are witnessing the globalization of obesity: eight of the 20 countries in the world with the fastest rising rates of adult obesity are in Africa, for example,” he said.

Obesity is associated with many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and some forms of cancer and costs about $2 trillion per year in direct health care and lost productivity.

“This is equivalent to the impact of smoking or the impact of armed conflicts nowadays,” he said.

In order to improve people’s diets local farmers need to be encouraged to use their land to cultivate a variety of nutrient-rich crops, including fruits and vegetables, he stressed, and this can be done by introducing policies and legislation to ensure institutional procurement from local family farmers.

Graziano da Silva named the high consumption of ultra-processed food as a major driver of obesity.

“Ultra-processed food contains little to no nutritional value, with a high content of saturated fats, refined sugars, salt and chemical additives,” he said, noting that such products are usually cheaper and easier to access than fresh food, particularly for poor people in urban areas.

“We need not only to produce food, but to produce food that is healthy and nutritious in a way that preserves the environment. Healthy food for all, based on sustainable agricultural development: this is FAO’s goal.”

Family farmers are key to sustainable development, he said. He stressed that the contribution of family farmers goes beyond food production.

“It is about boosting local economies,” he said. “It is about transmitting knowledge from generation to generation. It is about respecting and valuing local tradition, customs and culture. It is about improving nutrition and providing healthier diets based on fresh food, especially fruits and vegetables. It is about local territorial development. And it is about sustainability. Nothing comes closer to the sustainable development paradigm in food systems than family farming.”

However, family farmers are facing multiple challenges, including higher temperatures, erratic weather patterns, increased desertification and water scarcity, as well as the outbreak of pests and diseases, which need to be urgently addressed.