I was fascinated to see this FoodNavigator account of the recent United Nations’ call for action on nutrition.
The lengthy new UN resolution on “a healthier world through better nutrition” begins with pages of preliminary comments before getting to bland admonitions that member states should improve nutrition, health conditions, and living standards; address hunger and malnutrition; and promote food security, food safety, and sustainable, resilient, and diverse food systems.
The resolution encourages member states to strengthen nutrition policies that promote breastfeeding and control the marketing of breast-milk substitutes.
It also promotes physical activity. It
Calls upon Member States to develop actions to promote physical activity in the entire population and for all ages, through the provision of safe public environments and recreational spaces, the promotion of sports, physical education programmes in schools and urban planning which encourages active transport.
What got FoodNavigator’s—and my—attention, however, was its encouragement of member nations to:
develop health- and nutrition-promoting environments, including through nutrition education in schools and other education institutions, as appropriate.
Nutrition education? That’s it on improving the nutrition environment?
Nothing about curbs on food industry marketing practices, front-of-package food labels, soda or sugar taxes, or other policies established to be effective in improving nutritional health (see, for example, the policies listed on the World Health Organization’s database, or the NOURISHING database of The World Cancer Research Fund).
The UN’s own Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report on the value of education in improving the food environment. Its author, Corinna Hawkes, makes it clear that education is useful, but is far more effective when it thoroughly involves policies to change the food environment.
nutrition education actions are more likely to yield positive results…when actions are implemented as part of large, multi-component interventions, rather than information provision or direct education alone. It is notable that governments have been taking an increasing number of actions involving multiple components, such as combining policies on nutrition labels with education campaigns, public awareness campaigns with food product reformulation, and school food standards with educational initiatives in schools.
The resolution says none of this. Even so, it did not pass unanimously. The vote:
- Yes: 157 countries
- No: 2 (Libya and the United States)
- Abstain: 1 (Hungary)
And why did the United States vote no? The US mission to the UN explains its position on the grounds—and I am not making this up—that the resolution:
- Favors abortion: “We do not recognize abortion as a method of family planning, nor do we support abortion in our reproductive health assistance.”
- Promotes free trade in medicines: “This could lead to misinterpretation of international trade obligations in a manner which may negatively affect countries’ abilities to incentivise new drug development and expand access to medicines.”
- Promotes migration: “we believe [the resolution represents]…an effort by the United Nations to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign rights of States to manage their immigration systems in accordance with their national laws and interests.”
To be clear: UN resolutions are non-binding. The UN cannot tell member countries what to do. All it can do is exert leadership and moral force.
When it comes to the food environment these days, we need all the moral force we can get. We didn’t get it here.