Speech - On the launch of the Food and Nutrition Action Plan for Malta
16 December 2014, Valletta, Malta
Honourable Minister, distinguished representatives of other authorities and stakeholders, ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to convey my sincere thanks to the Government of Malta for the kind invitation to address such distinguished audience, on the occasion of this important and most timely launch of the Food and Nutrition Action Plan for Malta.
In Europe, as in most parts of the world, in poorer and richer countries, people are increasingly eating industrialized, highly processed foods and fewer healthy options, particularly those of vegetable origin, notably fruits and vegetables.
The statistics are really impressive: in 46 countries within the European Region more than 50% of adults are overweight or obese. In children, one in every four may already be overweight or obese and the problem continues to have the greatest impact among the most deprived groups of society.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the WHO European Region, more than eight in every 10 deaths and almost 80% of the disease burden is caused by noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and, with no exception, dietary factors are the single most important risk factors for the burden of disease in all 53 Member States.
Malta is no exception and, like many other Mediterranean countries, presents a worrisomely high level of obesity, particularly in school-age children.
I believe we should all ask ourselves the question: what happened to the colourful, balanced, environmentally friendly, highly protective, culturally meaningful and very unique Mediterranean diet?
Let me remind us all that this particular combination of foods that can be interpreted in different ways, depending in which part of the Mediterranean you are, has just been acknowledged by the United Nations as part of the world’s heritage. We need to preserve it and bring it back to our tables, together with the old days’ levels of physical activity.
As I said, children are of great concern because for quite a while there has been a persistent upward trend in overweight and obesity among this vulnerable group in your country.
The deadly combination of physical inactivity with unhealthy diets rich in sugar, fat (possibly trans fats) and too many calories explains why obesity, diabetes and other diet-related NCDs pose such a challenge to the health system and the economic welfare of the Maltese population. We need to change this and today the seeds of future change are being planted.
In parallel with the rapid acceleration in the rates of overweight, obesity and diet-related NCDs, the pervasive effects of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, particularly in poor households, are stubbornly persistent.
We are all aware that diet-related health problems, in particular NCDs, have a notorious negative impact on the quality of life and well-being in all countries, alongside a tremendously high burden on health systems and economic growth and productivity.
Especially in times of crisis and economic downturn, it is important to remember that the epidemiological distribution of diet-related NCDs shows great inequalities, reflecting a social gradient between and within countries.
This is why I am very happy to see your Food and Nutrition Action Plan has been inspired by Health 2020, and I am convinced that it can help you, like many other countries taking up the challenge of diet-related NCDs.
Already many countries across the Region have embarked on Health 2020 initiatives, developing national policies in line with Health 2020’s strategic objectives.
Health 2020 builds on two key assumptions. First, in this interconnected world we are not passive players; we understand the causes behind the ill health of our people and that we can actively strive for health, well-being and prosperity. Second, our individual actions can be greatly amplified by collective action, and in fact that our health destinies as peoples of Europe depend on it!
So the challenge that Health 2020 has taken up is to identify ways we as Europeans can collectively take action to benefit from new opportunities and address common challenges. Certainly diet-related health problems are one of the greatest challenges we are facing.
As you may recall Health 2020 identifies and details four priority action areas:
- investing in health through a life-course approach and empowering people;
- tackling the Region’s major health challenges notably of noncommunicable disease;
- strengthening people-centred health systems, public health capacity and emergency preparedness, surveillance and response; and
- creating resilient communities and supportive environments.
- How do I help my children not to take up bad eating habits?
- How do I influence my community to pass laws that make healthy diets easier to adopt?
- How do I work in partnership with my primary health care network to manage the huge number of overweight individuals?
I am delighted to see your Food and Nutrition Action Plan is following the strategic dimensions of Health 2020.
In this context, underlying determinants like diet and physical activity give us excellent opportunities for intervention and promoting our children well-being.
Malta is in the driving seat when it comes to working in developing public policies to address diet-related diseases and always in the forefront of these discussions in the European context.
Your country participated very actively in the WHO European Ministerial conference on nutrition and NCDs in the context of Health 2020, the process leading to the Vienna Declaration and in the adoption of the new European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015–2020.
I am sure you are all aware that Malta was the first country in the WHO European Region to adopt a food and nutrition policy back in 1990 and again the first country to adopt a new Action Plan fully in line with the recently adopted European framework.
Its priorities are fully in line with the vision and action areas proposed in the new European Food and Nutrition Action Plan, notably ensuring the inclusion of measures to affect food systems and the food environment and proposing strong action on food reformulation, marketing of food to children and regulation of food and nutrition in schools.
It continues by highlighting the importance of approaching health throughout the life-course, in which nutrition plays an important role before and during pregnancy and in breastfeeding, complementary feeding, child and adolescent nutrition, nutrition for the aging population, etc.
Further, the Maltese Action Plan also acknowledges the importance of establishing and sustaining appropriate monitoring and surveillance systems. Malta is already part of some of the most relevant WHO initiatives in the Region, notably the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study and the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI).
It also acknowledges how much remains to be done in terms of the health system and health care with an emphasis on primary health care. Indeed, training, counselling skills and adequate referral schemes and treatment protocols need to be streamlined and further developed.
Finally, the need for clear leadership at the highest possible level of government, based on a health-in-all-policies approach and using sound intersectoral governance mechanisms, with an emphasis on proper management of conflicts of interest, accountability and transparency, to which all stakeholders should enthusiastically adhere.
Your Plan is important because – together with your initiatives around physical activity, obesity and NCDs – it is specifically set up to deal with the negative impact of unhealthy diets and other risk factors in Malta.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the context of this Action Plan of course measures to reduce childhood obesity deserve highlighting. It is important to note that to succeed they need the engagement of the whole society. All stakeholders need to rise to the challenge, and show good will and responsible behaviour.
Measures to promote healthier diets are not only good for health but will also boost the economy by increasing demand for certain types of products that need to be made available and affordable.
I confess I am particularly concerned with the challenges we face to protect our schools and children from the negative impact of unhealthy food environments and marketing techniques. I am reassured to see your Action Plan is set up to face that in a decisive fashion.
At the same time, schools need to promote the value of heritage, cultural and health protection properties of our diets. Countries with the Mediterranean heritage are the ones where childhood obesity poses more problems. We need to do more.
Dear Minister, dear colleagues,
I would like to recall the global targets on obesity and NCDs, where we are expected to at least prevent the increase of childhood obesity prevalence at the global level.
I believe it is possible. Never was the issue so high on the agenda as it is today.
In achieving good public health it is paramount that the various sectors work together in line with Health 2020. I am pleased to acknowledge that Malta is making considerable progress in this front.
Your Action Plan is a good one: very inspirational, but fully comprehensive, action oriented and with clear priorities, indicators and targets. I am therefore fully convinced that its implementation will be a great success.
It is now time to mobilize policy-makers, stakeholders, practitioners and the whole of society to resolve an issue that is undermining your islands’ health and wealth.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In responding to the health challenges related to food and nutrition, WHO strives to support countries in the Region in their endeavours to ensure that the food supply is secure and nutritious.
I am assured that the priority actions of your Food and Nutrition Action Plan will contribute to improving food-system governance and the overall quality of the Maltese population’s diet and nutritional status.
I also acknowledge that your Food and Nutrition Action Plan nicely links up with the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and the Framework for Action, both adopted a few weeks ago at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)/WHO Second International Conference on Nutrition, which served as the global intergovernmental forum to address issues concerning nutrition in the 21st century.
Once again, I congratulate Malta for being the first country in the WHO European Region to renew its Food and Nutrition Action Plan, inspired by the European Food and Nutrition Action Plan and based on the regional policy framework, Health 2020.
Ladies and gentlemen, as I close, let me assure you that WHO stands ready to further support Malta in implementing effective multisectoral interventions for diet-related diseases. I wish you a very successful implementation of your important Action Plan.