Simona Seravesi: “If we want people to be healthy, we need our planet to be healthy too”
We need a unifying approach that sustainably balances the health of people, animals and ecosystems. Thus was born the “One Health” initiative, a work of the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). We discussed this initiative and the issues facing nutrition globally with Simona Seravesi, former Health Advisor to the Italian G20 Presidency and current Senior Consultant in WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.
—What are we facing?
In terms of nutrition, one of the main challanges is malnutrition in all its forms, which imply several dimensions. It is important to note that nutrition does not only mean undernutrition but also considers overweight and obesity. When we talk about nutrition in our department one of the main health issues is obesity. Even with the impact of COVID-19 we have seen an increase in the figures of overweight and obesity.
If we look at the map of the world, there are some regions that are particularly heat, such as the Latinamerican region, parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. This is a challenge at the end of the circle, because obesity is related to diet, culture and characteristics of society in each country. This means we have to intervene from a multifactorial approach.
—How can we curb obesity?
There are several interventions and policies that can be put in place to face this challenge. For example, regulations, public education and awareness, fiscal policy, food labelling, marketing (specially when it is targeted to children) and food procurement. We have to go beyond and consider all factors.
Another aspect is the political commitment. Health is becoming more political. In the case of obesity, which is linked to the choices of citizens, political commitments are fundamental.
—Could you give us examples of good practices?
One of the things that is key is to look at those countries that have applied good policies, for example, in terms of taxation.
This is the case of Portugal, that in order to tackle with the problem of overweight and obesity has applied taxations on sweet berverages for children with great results. In fact, there was a reduction of the 21% of the selling of these berverages. This shows that when there is political commitment and policies are applied we see improvements in terms of nutrition strategies.
Another example is Chile and the labelling policy, which showed improvements in the diet of people. Each country will tailor the way practices are applied, but sharing initiatives is a very important thing to do.
—The global impact of COVID-19 and the response to this crisis highlight the need for coordinated action across sectors to protect health and prevent disruptions to food systems. What is the role of “One Health” in this context?
“Una Salud” combines human, animal and ecosystem health to prevent, detect, respond to and recover from infectious diseases. The impact of COVID-19 affected the global health architecture, challenging the way we are approaching global health.
The pandemic rushed us to find vaccins, diagnostics, therapeutics, but it also showed that we have to think about strategies at a long term perspective and consider that if we want people to be healthy, we need our planet to be healthy too. “One Health” helps to better tackle this virus and the fortcoming ones, specially if we consider that 27% viruses around the world can be dangerous as COVID-19.
—In other words, we have to consider global health as an aspect that goes beyond health. Is that right?
Exactly. In short, we need to overcome the traditional approach of health and consider several factors that are interconnected. With this broader approach we can put in place strategies to cope and prevent situations like this pandemic by intervening in several sectors, including the food system sector.
This implies increasing, for instance, the surveillance on food born deseases and food safety, as well as other aspects that would improve global health of the citizens but also of the planet. Discussions about antimicrobian resistance and climate change is also fundamental. At the same time, this approach helps to promote dialogue: the Ministry of Agriculture should work closely with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Health should further consider the environmental aspect.
—We cannot deny the fact that human health is linked to animal health.
Food born deseases are coming from eating animals that are not surveilled in terms of safety. The technicians should be able to tackle immidiately relations with the animals. There is also huge discussions about the contamination between human and animal health because we are living in a very high urbanized world which is becoming more and more urbanized. The wild life is getting closer and closer to the urban life.
—So, is globalisation the friend or foe of food?
One the one side, there are positive aspects, such as an increase in the access of food (though we should consider its quality). On the other side, there are multiple negative factors in terms of globalization. I think the increase in urbanization and the fact most people are concentrating in one place, also means that people are exposed to eat more unhealthy food. Also, globalization increases the power of the food industry and food marketing.
Apart from that, the environmental issue is also significant in the globalization proccess, this is the case of air pollution and how it impacts in health.
—Can healthy and sustainable food be a tool for progress?
Food is something related to our identity and culture and is a means to reach other things. I strongly believe it is a tool for change and we can see it in the data. The role of the private sector is fundamental in this sense.
When the private sector and the government are too close, it is a big problem. But when they join efforts, the result is great. For instance, when Israel was about to introduce their food labelling scheme, they shared the idea with the private sector and they discussed together which kind of labelling regulation was better for their culture.
As a result, the food industry started to accomodate the ingredients based on the new policy that was coming out. This is a good example of how the private and the public sector can work together to improve the diet of people.
—What about consumers?
As consumers we have a huge power, but, ¿are we aware of that? On the one side, we have to design policies that protect and empower consumers. As consumers, we need to take on responsibility by controling what we buy and eat and also being concious that we have the power to put pressure on the private sector.
—How can we contribute to the transformation of food systems?
We need to put more attention on what we buy, choose Zero KM products and buy organic food. This alternatives might be expensive, but I would recommend at least some specific items to be organic. I also suggest to decrease the consumtion of meat.
Food is not something you just put in your mouth, food comes from an environment which is not always healthy. We need be informed and to engage young generations.
In schools there are already very interesting practices. But apart from delivering information, it is important to offer children sustainable and healthy food. We have to be coherent. In this sense, we have a long way to go.