By Stephanie Brittain
More than 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger and two billion suffer from nutrient deficiency. One in four children is stunted and one in two is malnourished. At the same time, 1.9 billion people are overweight, of which 600 million are obese. This is the current state of global nutrition; unbalanced and unequal.
In recognition of this, the Chicago Council held the London launch of their latest report “Healthy Food for a healthy World: Leveraging Agriculture and Food Security to Improve Global Nutrition” on the 2nd of June 2015. A distinguished panel discussed the key issues that are raised in the report, including Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Chair, High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, Montpellier Panel member Lindiwe Sibanda, CEO of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), Catherine Bertini, Distinguished Fellow, Global Agriculture and Food, The Chicago Council and Jeff Waage, Technical Advisor and host of the Secretariat of the Global Panel of Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.
Barriers to healthy food systems
The report states that unprecedented changes in demographic trends and dietary demands mean that we can no longer do business as usual. A ‘nutrition transition’ is taking place in many low and middle income countries that is characterised by an increase in consumption of vegetable oils, refined and processed foods, sweet drinks and sedentary lifestyles. The key burdens to healthy food systems are identified as:
- Population growth and urbanisation: By 2050, two thirds of a projected 9 billion people will live in cities, where the incomes of urban residents are currently driving changes in diets. The global demand for meat and dairy products is expected to increase by 75% from 2005 levels by 2050, compared to just 40% for cereals.
- Climate change: Warmer temperatures can reduce the critical growth period of plants, decreasing yields. Additionally, increased temperatures provide better breeding grounds for pathogens such as salmonella, increasing the need for a stronger focus on food safety. Further, increasing levels of carbon dioxide will reduce the levels of key micronutrients such as iron and zinc, with serious implications for human health.
- Food Waste: Presently, one third of all food is wasted. If this level of wastage continues, we will need to increase production by an estimated 50-60% by 2050 to meet growing demand and shifts in dietary patterns.
Cost of malnutrition- why should we care?
The key costs identified in the report are rising healthcare costs, lost labour productivity and a hindered economic growth. In the US, healthcare costs directly related to obesity are between $475- $2,532 per person per year. Obesity in the UK will cost £648 million a year in healthcare by 2020. The cost of treating obesity is equal to 4-9% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of most countries.
Adults undernourished as children earn 20% less than those that received proper nourishment. Obesity in the US leads to productivity losses of up to $4,299 per person per year. By 2030, non-communicable or chronic disease related to obesity (such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes) will reach $35 trillion. That is seven times the current level of spending on global health.
Asia and Africa lose 11% of Gross National Product (GNP) each year due to poor nutrition. In China, the GNP will be reduced by 8.73% due to obesity.
What can the agricultural sector do?
The agriculture community has focused much on increasing productivity, but not enough on promoting nutritious and diverse food. Food systems can play a key role in improving global nutrition. The report makes the following key recommendations:
- Strengthen policies to support nutrition-sensitive food systems
The long-term nature of food and nutrition security calls for a long-term commitment from government. The report calls for congress to pass legislation that commits the US to a global food and nutrition security strategy; for the US government to expand access and incentives to healthy food via food aid and social security programmes; and for the US government to align investments in nutrition and develop collaborative research and programmes.
- Expand the research agenda for nutrition-sensitive food systems
The US government should increase funding for nutrition research to expand access to diverse, nutrient rich foods and address malnutrition, in partnership with universities, business and civil society. There is a need to invest in research to improve access to diverse, health foods and measure the nutrition and health impacts of agricultural development programmes.
- Prepare the next generation of leaders in food and nutrition security
The US should use its research and education infrastructure to train the next generation of agriculture, food and nutrition leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Investment is needed in agriculture and nutrition in low-income countries via universities, research institutions and training facilities; a prize fund for food system innovations that contribute to the modernisation of agriculture and nutrition knowledge exchange; and training to PeaceCorps volunteers to incorporate nutrition-sensitive activities into their outreach work
- Develop public-private partnerships to support nutrition sensitive food systems
Public-private partnerships (PPP’s) are vitally important to realign the food system and better meet nutrition goals. Private sector investment is needed to reduce post-harvest losses and increase food processing with a focus on food safety; promote voluntary guidelines to reduce marketing unhealthy food to children; increase technical assistance on food safety through US regional trade hubs in Africa; and fund programmers to encourage the development of entrepreneurial activity in local food systems to improve access to diverse, nutrients rich foods.
Throughout the report, there is a strong focus on the need for collaboration between different sectors and on women empowerment. As Lindiwe Sibanda pointed out during the launch, women are the key to improved nutrition of families in sub-Saharan Africa, as they are often primarily responsible for feeding the family and selecting nutritious foods for cooking. Women carry both the knowledge and the burden of agriculture on their shoulders. The report also highlights the challenge of making nutrients rich food available in a sustainable way. Lindiwe stated that agriculture is both a victim and a contributor to climate change. Yields will drop by 15% by 2050 due to climate change and smallholder farmers will be worst affected. We need Climate Smart Agriculture and social safety nets such as insurance to build the resilience of smallholder farmers and their farm systems.
The agriculture and food sectors are uniquely positioned to be driving forces in overcoming the challenge of nutrition security. Through collaboration and innovation, the agriculture and food sectors can produce life-changing progress in reducing the reality and risks of malnutrition.
The report is available to download here