Story 10: Reflecting on the Food Crisis - The International Congress of Nutrition in Tokyo

Story 10: Reflecting on the Food Crisis - The International Congress of Nutrition in Tokyo

6 February 2023 - 

Read our tenth story in the series on The Food Crisis: What's Happening, a collection of work on the current events and the impact communities are seeing on a global scale. 

The Food Crisis is affecting everyone socially, economically and nutritionally. Ty Beal, Stella Nordhagen and Gina Kennedy recently attended the International Congress of Nutrition, here they write on the discourse needed to tackle the crisis

After more than a year’s delay, the International Congress of Nutrition took place in Tokyo, Japan from December 6–11, 2022. The congress takes place every four years and is like the Olympics for the global nutrition community: in marathon sessions spread across six days, thousands from around the world gathered to share knowledge in the nutritional sciences.

GAIN staff had more than a dozen presentations and symposiums at the conference, covering topics related to diet quality and diet diversity, hidden hunger, food choices, food fortification, diversification of dietary habits, food safety, the role of youth and adolescents in shaping food systems, ensuring food security in the context of social protection, food affordability, processed foods, the food environment, and food package labeling. Throughout all of this, the read thread of the ongoing global food crisis connected us all.

Everyone’s conference experience was unique, given that over a dozen different events were often taking place simultaneously, but we will highlight a few key takeaways from our (collective) experience. 

Our first day started before the official conference began, attending a satellite symposium on young people’s potential to shape sustainable food environments. It was refreshing to see young people centre stage, given a chance to share their experience, perspectives, and expertise. This was followed by the opening ceremony, where the host country's hospitality was on full display—including remarks from the Princess of Japan!

Ultra-processed foods were a key theme across the conference. Carlos Monteiro and Barry Popkin, world experts on the topic, gave compelling talks on the latest evidence around the health risks of ultra-processed foods and policy strategies for curbing their consumption. Dr. Monteiro emphasized how the type of processing used to produce ultra-processed foods leads to disease, independent of their nutrient profile. In other words, we can’t just reformulate ultra-processed foods to make them healthy. Dr. Popkin discussed the evidence around national-level policy to curb ultra-processed food intake, how high prices of minimally processed foods make this even more challenging. Dr. Popkin spoke about the behaviour of large food companies and their ability to circumvent legislation by designing packaging of products in ways that make warning labels less obvious for consumers. He warned that keeping up with industry’s maneuvers to get around regulations would be an ongoing process. Researchers from Deakin University and others also held a symposium on ultra-processed foods to a room-over-filling crowd of about 200. They highlighted the impact of ultra-processed foods on health and environment, their global rise (including the drivers of this), social and cultural implications, and the need for regulatory reforms.

From these sessions as well as conversations about conflicts of interest in nutrition research, it was clear that there is strong evidence of the health risks of ultra-processed foods and worry about the role of the companies that promote them. Yet there is still not consensus on what to do about it, to what extent to work with industry, and in what way. For us, the main take-away was to ensure GAIN programs in Africa and parts of Asia not only support healthy foods (our main focus to date) but also limit the rise in intake of ultra-processed and other unhealthy foods; this will include grappling with how we interact with actors producing ultra-processed foods. In times of scarcity, we do not want to exacerbate the food crisis further by creating reliance on cheaper, ultra-processed food at the expense of global health.

Turning to our own conference contributions, GAIN and Harvard hosted a lunchtime seminar on the Global Diet Quality Project, attended by over 150 participants. It was incredible to have project collaborators from around the world all together for a joint session. Topics covered included an overview of the need for global monitoring of diet quality, the diet quality questionnaire adaptation process, results from data collected via the Gallup World Poll in 41 countries, development of new indicators of diet quality, and a proof-of-concept self-administered diet quality monitoring system in Rwanda. Key messages included the use of the diet quality questionnaire as a standardized, globally applicable tool that can be used to construct indicators of diet quality, including Minimum Diet Diversity for Women as well as non-communicable disease risk and protection (NCD-Risk and NCD-Protect) scores that are based on the World Health Organization's guidelines for a healthy diet. Further details of the findings from the first round of diet quality data are available in a full report.

GAIN also hosted a symposium on programming to improve adolescent nutrition, which featured inputs from and experience-sharing among several NGOs working to innovate in this space, and the GAIN-led USAID Feed the Future EatSafe programme hosted a symposium highlighting the links between food safety and nutrition.

A third GAIN-led symposium was on food affordability, featuring presentations from quantitative and qualitative perspectives, including the Food Prices for Nutrition project and the WFP Fill the Nutrient Gap work. It was clear that many people cannot afford a healthy diet, and efforts are needed to make nutritious foods more affordable to low-income populations. Social protection programs can be effective at reaching the poorest populations, who are generally the most malnourished. Understanding the perspectives of those living in poverty and how they cope with constrained food affordability is important for effective programming and policies that address the main affordability barriers, which are difficult to identify through quantitative analyses alone. One apparent gap in the symposium was an overall approach to improving affordability over the long term: what types of policies and interventions are needed to reduce prices of nutritious foods and raise food budgets? That’s not an easy question, and the answer likely varies across contexts, requiring local scenario modelling to identify effective solutions.

One presentation in the affordability symposium used qualitative data from Ethiopia to highlight how the current food price crisis was affecting food choices and likely leading to worse diet quality. Indeed, the recent food price crisis was mentioned in many of the conference presentations, even though the research shared generally pre-dated it. For example, a symposium organized by the Micronutrient Forum examined how various stresses and shocks—including COVID-19, climate change, the food crisis, and conflict—affect nutrition and what can be done to increase resilience to them. It was clear that much remains to be done both to improve nutritional resilience and to better track how these strains are affecting food access, diets, and nutritional status. This will be essential work in the near future, as such shocks are likely to continue to be the "new normal."

Finally, one of the most rewarding aspects of global conferences like these is connecting with colleagues in person. It was an opportunity to meet many colleagues for the first time, and to see others in person for the first time in a while. There is no replacement for this face-to-face connection, which expands networks and facilitates ongoing collaboration. We’re grateful for the opportunity to share our research, learn, and connect with colleagues in Tokyo and look forward to the next International Congress of Nutrition in Paris in 2025.

Read more about our ongoing series on The Food Crisis: What's Happening