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Friday, March 7, 2014
In this column, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, assistant director-general for economic and social development at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), writes that while the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015 is within reach, much more needs to be done to eradicate malnutrition, which is the underlying cause of 2.6 million child deaths each year and the reason why a quarter of the world’s children, including a third of children in developing countries, are stunted.
- Between 2010 and 2012, 868 million people worldwide were deemed hungry by a conservative definition. This figure represents only a small fraction of the world’s population whose health and lives are blighted by malnutrition.
Currently, malnutrition is believed to be the underlying cause of death for 2.6 million children annually. Meanwhile, two billion people lack adequate micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – that are essential for their mental and physical development.
A quarter of the children in the world, and a third in developing countries, are stunted because they do not get the right nutrients. Four in five of these malnourished children are in just 20 countries, including almost half of Indian children under five.
In Nigeria, over half of the poorest children are stunted, while in China, children in poor rural counties are six times more likely to be stunted than urban children. In Indonesia, a sharp rise in wasting – or acute malnutrition – in the wake of recent food crises has hit children from the poorest households hardest.
Receiving the right nutrients in the first years of life is not only a matter of life and death, but also a major determinant of future life chances – potentially raising future earnings by a fifth. Today, about 170 million children under five are stunted because they do not get the right nutrients, while their cognitive and physical development is impaired.
Some progress has been made in reducing hunger over the past two decades. With a strong final push, the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) objective of halving the prevalence of hunger by 2015 is within reach. Already, 51 countries have achieved the target, or are on track to do so.
With modest progress over the past two decades, the share of stunted children declined from 40 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2010. And if present trends continue, half a billion more children will be stunted in the next 15 years.
Meanwhile, around one and a half billion people are overweight, with half a billion deemed obese, and hence, more vulnerable to serious non-communicable diseases. Malnutrition could cost as much as five percent of global income – 3.5 trillion dollars, or 500 dollars per person – in terms of lost productivity and health care expenses.
What should we do to eradicate malnutrition? The 2013 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisaion (FAO), ‘The State of Food and Agriculture: Food systems for better nutrition’, shows the way forward. Good nutrition must start with food production. Improved food systems must make nutritious foods affordable.
Overcoming malnutrition – caloric undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, obesity – requires appropriate interventions in food systems, public health, education and social protection. Tackling malnutrition is a complex task requiring strong political commitment, leadership at the highest levels, and unprecedented cooperation and coordination among various ministries and partners.Better organised food systems are key to more diversified and healthier diets. Policy must ensure that all people have informed access to a wide range of nutritious foods to make healthy choices. Consumers need help making better dietary choices for improved nutrition with regulation, education, information and other interventions.
Food systems must become more sensitive to the special needs of mothers and young children. Malnutrition during the critical first 1,000 days from conception can cause permanent physical and cognitive impairment in children and lasting damage to the mothers’ health.
Food security and nutrition are now at the apex of the international development agenda. In June 2012, the United Nations Secretary General made the call to set the ambitious but feasible goal of zero hunger. The Zero Hunger Challenge calls for a world without hunger, no more stunting, minimal food waste and losses, sustainable agriculture and doubling poor farmers’ incomes.
On Jun. 8, the governments of Brazil and the United Kingdom will co-host a high-level pre-G8 meeting entitled ‘Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science’ in London. UK Prime Minister David Cameron intends to follow up by sponsoring a high-level global panel on agriculture and food systems for nutrition.
On Nov. 19-21, 2014, the FAO, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and others in the U.N. system will co-organise the inter-governmental International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), 22 years after the first one in 1992, to establish the bases for sustained international cooperation and policy coordination to overcome malnutrition. The preparatory technical meeting on Nov. 13-15 this year will establish the evidence base for this purpose.
Malnutrition’s time has come. By cooperating effectively, we have a real chance of ending this blight on humanity within a generation.