Today is World Food Day, the day that marks the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and this year the focus is on sustainable food systems for food security and nutrition. The FAO have produced a brief highlighting the key changes we need to make to our food systems to ensure everyone has access to enough nutritious food.
This year the FAO is emphasizing the ineffectiveness of our current food systems to tackle malnutrition. One in four children under the age of five in the world are stunted due to malnutrition, which when occurring early in childhood can limit physical and mental development for the rest of the child’s life. In total around two million people are not getting sufficient levels of essential vitamins and minerals in their diets, while at the same time some 1.4 billion people are overweight. These different types of malnutrition can coexist within populations and are in some ways linked. Both stunted mothers and overweight mothers can give birth to stunted babies due to a lack of nutrients in their diet, and stunted children are at greater risk of becoming obese as adults.
The cost of malnutrition can be measured in terms of both direct health care costs as well as indirect losses to human productivity and has been estimated at 5% of global income or $3.5 trillion per year. In tackling malnutrition, if we invested $1.2 billion per year for five years the annual gains generated are calculated at some $15.3 billion.
To tackle malnutrition we need to look at every aspect of the food system: the environment, institutions, processes and people. As an example, agriculture, which through poor practice can degrade the environmental resource base on which it depends is a serious threat to our food security. Together with forestry, agriculture uses 60% of the world’s land resources and 70% of the world’s freshwater resources. Using these resources efficiently and sustainably is crucial to ensuring we can feed the world now and into the future.
Of course malnutrition is not just a symptom of our agricultural systems, it also depends on access to clean drinking water, sanitation, healthcare and education about nutrition and feeding practices. It will also not be solved with a singular focus on increasing productivity, although food production will need to increase to feed the world under such threats as climate change. We also need to direct efforts to increasing the diversity of produce grown or accessed by households and increasing the nutrient content of existing foods. At all points along the food chain, interventions should be nutrition-sensitive, whether through fortifying foods or through processing and packaging nutrient-dense foods such as fruit in a way to maximise their longevity and ability to be transported to where they are needed.
Malnutrition is a complex problem. Policies aimed at transforming the world’s food and agricultural systems rarely have a specific goal of improving nutrition and where they do the impacts on nutrition are hard to ascertain or relate back to the actions taken. We require concerted effort, strong political leadership and coordination across sectors. The FAO summarises the action needed in three key messages:
1) Good nutrition depends on healthy diets;
2) Healthy diets require healthy food systems – along with education, health, sanitation and other factors;
3) Healthy food systems are made possible by appropriate policies, incentives and governance.
As an example of where progress has been made, the FAO discusses the FARM Africa Dairy Goat Development Project, which aimed to increase milk consumption and local incomes by helping women farmers improve the productivity of their goats. .The project led to an increase in the per capita availability of milk by 119%, energy from animal sources by 39%, protein by 39% and fat by 63%. The intervention was considered particularly successful due to the integration of various goals: nutrition, environment and gender. Combining goals whether they be availability or access, food security or nutrition or obesity and stunting is not only a big theme for this World Food Day but should be a focus for International Development as a whole.