Asia Has the Opportunity to Lead the Way on Tackling Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a complex and multi-factorial issue, and it is recognised by a range of stakeholders – including Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Co-chair of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity – that for it to be dealt with effectively, the causative factors must be addressed.

In an exclusive interview with Food Industry Asia (FIA) at the end of 2015, Sir Peter said that while there was no “magic bullet” to solving the rise of the growing obesity epidemic in Asia or the rest of the world, there has to be accord and proper undertakings among industry, government, civil society and the private sector.

“Real progress can only be made by constructive, transparent and accountable engagement with the private sector, and some degree of regulation may be necessary,” Sir Peter said.

“There has to be accord among government, public health officials, industry and civil society about the definition and objectives of a healthy lifestyle message. Good nutritional education should be promoted both in the populations and schools, so that consumer demand comes from healthier foods that include fruits and vegetables. If consumers understand what healthy eating and lifestyle is, the industry will move toward what the consumer wants.”

As the recognised voice of the food industry in the region, Food Industry Asia (FIA) was invited to submit its views to the World Health Organization’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) in November 2015. In its submission, FIA supported several of the views set out in the Commission’s Draft Final Report, and stressed the importance of deploying multi-sectoral and science-based solutions to a problem that requires a whole-of-society response in Asia.

One such initiative taking place in this part of the world is the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN). ARoFIIN is a public-private partnership convened by the Health Promotion Board (HPB), A*STAR, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) and FIA, bringing together experts from across government, academia, industry, non-governmental and civil society sectors in Asia, to initiate and sustain regional, multi-stakeholder dialogue on the role of food innovation in tackling obesity and chronic diseases.

This group of key decision-makers works toward fostering a conducive forum to support dissemination of science-based information on the causes and drivers of obesity and chronic disease, as well as improving clarity on the barriers and enablers for research, development and food innovation in the region. ARoFIIN leverages effective public-private partnerships and stimulates scalable, cost-effective and multi-stakeholder strategies that drive food innovation and positive change in consumer behaviour.

Cross-sectoral, matrix-based solutions are particularly relevant in Asia, where the obesity issue is amplified by the dual burden of poor nutrition. The prevalence of chronic disease caused by malnutrition and obesity is a multi-factorial issue requiring complex solutions. The food industry understands the challenge and is responding. Governments in Asia are beginning to see tangible benefits of a self-regulatory approach on interventions, such as marketing to children and nutrition literacy; they are working with non-profit industry associations to nurture innovation and change.

While there is strong alignment between the actions championed by FIA in Asia and many of the policy options recommended in the ECHO Draft Final Report, FIA suggested that more research needed to be conducted on the use of fiscal policies as an obesity intervention across Asia.

In its submission, FIA highlighted how, together with its network of national industry associations throughout Asia, it has been working constructively with governments and academic experts on these complex nutrition issues, with the goal of promoting a joined-up dialogue spanning all points of the supply chain and capturing the views of all businesses, large and small.

“We have shown that putting our full support behind public-private partnerships can help develop successful policies that deliver strong outcomes to tackle serious issues such as childhood obesity,” says Matt Kovac, Executive Director of FIA.

“We did highlight (in our submission) that research shows that standalone supply and demand measures such as taxes can be too simplistic to address the underlying causes of these complex health challenges; we work collaboratively as government, civil society and industry to find more innovative, sustainable solutions,” he added.

“ARoFIIN presents us with a tremendous opportunity to bring a diverse range of multi-disciplinary expertise to the table,” says Mr Kovac. “Our members are key decision-makers in their respective fields, coming together to work toward the single goal of tackling obesity and chronic diseases through food innovation.”

“To effectively tackle a global issue like obesity, collaborations – particularly public-private partnerships – are necessary to the process. The teamwork across this unique public-private platform gives us the ability to scale up projects at a quicker rate, ease the transfer of technology and skills, and conduct wider outreach and dissemination of knowledge and resources.”

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