Malnutrition, the bane of food systems

AGRF 2020

September 4, 2019

What cannot be measured can never get done. Nutrition is suffering the fate of poor attention with no one being accountable for it when we talk about food security and wellbeing of humanity.

Current food systems are not sensitive about nutrition and the world is paying the high price of poor diets and increased poor health, researchers say.

A panel discussion at the on-going AGRF in Ghana sought to answer the question on boosting accountability and accelerating action to support nutrition sensitive sustainable food systems on the back of the EAT-Lancet Report and the Continental Nutrition Accountability Scorecard.

Taking Action

2018 World Food Prize Laureate, Dr. Lawrence Haddad, who is also the Executive Director of GAIN, set the tone in answering the vexing question by highlighting seven key ‘D’s he said are needed to make food systems sustainable and nutrition-sensitive.

“We need to have the desire to want to make the systems nutrition sensitive,” Haddad said. “There has to be some kind of motivation to make agriculture systems more nutrition supporting. This is probably the most difficult. The narrative has to change from ending hunger only to nourishing population that is quite a big shift for many who have been battling hunger all their lives.”

Haddad said there is a need for adequate data to help policy makers and the public sector leaders, while dialogue is critical in getting the public and private sectors talking to each other and collaborating. Furthermore, countries need to design food system action plans and make the right decisions on allocating resources appropriately while documentation is key having the right information about food systems and that dynamics are important too.

“We really need to be able to adjust to new opportunities and existing and new shocks which could be conflict, climate, changing political regimes or a wide range of things and the key to the ability to adapt in a dynamic way is resources and capacity,” said Haddad.

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health report launched in January 2019, sought to define targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. It is a result of prominent academics working to solve the impending issue of how we will feed a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050, without ‘dramatically transforming the global population’s eating habits, improving food production and reducing food waste.’

Jan Low from CIP says many of the EAT report recommendations were based really on western diet and researchers need to help adjust the recommendations to situations on the ground, for example in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ringson Chitsiko, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation, Zimbabwe says unless and until governments act at the highest level to consult and take action on policies to underpin nutrition, calls for nutrition-sensitive food systems will come to nought.

Mainstreaming nutrition

He said nutrition should be mainstreamed in national policies so that it is not an afterthought when food has been produced.

“There are gaps between policy makers and the people that will be impacted by those policies hence the need for consultation. You need to know what is it that tickles everybody when they sit at a dinner table,” said Chitsiko, underlining the need to document and campaign about the benefits of nutritious food.

Roy Steiner, Managing Director, Food Initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation, concurred. He questioned if people knew what they are eating in terms of the bio-chemical components of the food.

“The gap in our nutritional understanding is huge,” he said adding that without question, many people were not eating the right kinds of food but we do not know how to shift the demand for nutrition.

“Our health care system is going to be bankrupted by the food system and the statistics about the tsunami of diet related diseases and cost of those diseases are coming at us and this issue is not going away,” said Steiner warning that we cannot build a sustainable society without taking into account the interdependence of an integrated and sustainable food that the world needs.

The global food system is complex and there is a need for people to understand it, while people need to make informed choices about the food they eat, what they buy and how it is prepared. This is a process that should involve the government, private sector and other actors in the food system production, distribution and consumption.

A lot of the decisions and actions we have made in the last decade have been skewed towards production and distribution and very little on the consumption but that is where the rubber hits the road, that is where nutrition outcomes are achieved,” said Debisi Araba, Regional Director, CIAT, noting that the Continental Nutrition Scorecard launched by the African Development Bank enables governments to assess their progress on nutrition and to identify the right partnerships within the countries across multiple sectors.

Abdou Tenkouano, a plant breeder and Executive Director of CORAF, said while it is not contested that nutrition leads to good health, agriculture has a challenge to deliver high-nutrition crops.

Information is key

A nutrition sensitive food system should comprise of a holistic approach that should include food production, nutrition and health.

John Bee, Regional Head of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs, Nestle, said industry needs to contribute to food transformation by creating healthy and enjoyable food responsibly. The industry should also lead in public education about nutrition.