A Call to Arms in the Fight Against Malnutrition

The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems released a new set of recommendations recently and is presenting the alarming findings to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. “Alarming” is in fact an understatement. Here’s some highlights from the 133 page “Food systems and diets: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century”.

  1. There are 3 billion people in the world today with low quality diets (defined by the study as diets providing insufficient calories, vitamins and minerals or too many calories, saturated fats, salts and sugars). According to Worldometers, there are over 7.45 billion people in the world right now to put it in perspective. That means that 2 out of 5 humans aren’t receiving the proper nutrition for one reason or another.
  2. 2 Billion of these people are not consuming enough micronutrients for proper health.
  3. Incidence of overweight and obese individuals is on the rise pretty much everywhere.
  4. The study ties undernutrition to the death of approximately 7,000 deaths of children under 5 daily
  5. 6 of the top 11 factors driving disease are related to diet and these have risen to outnumber the risks posed by unsafe sex, alcohol and drug use combined.

Even though global nutrition has been improving incrementally over the past decades it’s obviously not enough. We’re fighting an uphill battle against demographic shifts, population increase, climate change, urbanization, and scarcity of natural resources. The report places the blame squarely with our food systems.

The good news is that the panel has a plan. It will require a fundamental change in how we think about food and nutrition, but it is definitely feasible. Beyond the feasibility of their recommendations, it is clear that something must be done.

  1. Focus on providing healthy diets for infants and young children
  2. In a similar vein, ensure adequate nutrition for adolescent and young females. Childbearing is hard work and healthy mothers lead to health babies.
  3. Rely on evidence based food policy, rather than ideologically driven policies.
  4. Overcome supply side barriers to the growth, distribution, and storage of plant based food sources.
  5. Create policies to disincentivize production of highly processed foods which strip foods of their nutrients.
  6. Educate the people!
  7. Share the burden of accountability at all levels. This is not something industry, governments, or non-governmental organizations can fix on their own.
  8. Increase cooperation between government divisions affecting the food supply. That means agriculture, health, and commerce sectors working together.
  9. Use the government purchasing power to institutionalize high quality diets. Governments feed a lot of people directly. Meals are served across the world in militaries, hospitals, prisons, etc. We need to ensure that these meals are of the highest quality. As a member of the military I’ve often wondered how we can focus so much on health, yet our food choices are of the lowest quality.
  10. Stress investment globally on research focused on nutrition and the health of our food systems.

These changes will not be easy or cheap, but the panel has also highlighted the benefits to governments outside of the general health and well-being of their populous. The panel has identified a benefit even the most callous government can’t ignore, the effect on government coffers. All these malnourished citizens are hampering productivity and stunting national growth (pun intended). It’s estimated that the losses are between 3 and 16% of GDP in Africa and Asia. However, the possible return on investment is high. It has been shown that countries can expect 16 GBP for every one that is invested in healthcare. Sounds like a pretty good deal.

Hopefully policy makers out there won’t turn a blind eye to this. When they do food scientists, nutritionist, policy makers, and educators will have the chance to save the world.

Resources

Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. 2016. Food systems and diets: Facing the challenges of the 21st century. London, UK

Photo courtesy of FreeImages.com/Asif Akbar

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