Building back better through nutrient-smart agriculture

According to the UN State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 (SOFI 2020) report, the world is still way off track for achieving the goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition by 2030.

SOFI is an annual flagship report jointly prepared by FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO to inform on progress towards these goals, and to provide in-depth analysis on the key barriers to achieving them, in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Zeroing in on the findings of SOFI 2020, this session provided a chance to reflect on the opportunity, as described by moderator Dr Jemimah Njuki, Senior Program Specialist at IDRC, “to build back a better, healthier, and inclusive food system”. To frame the urgency of the issues at hand, Dr Njuki began by providing some of the key numbers from the report.

“Nearly 690 million are hungry, 750 million have severe levels of food insecurity,” said Dr Njuki. “Over 2 billion people in the world do not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food. And more than 3 billion people in the world cannot afford healthy diets.”

So, “this is the time to be talking about [these issues],” added Dr Njuki, particularly given the projected impact of COVID-19, which is anticipated to result in an additional 132 million people becoming under-nourished in 2020 alone.

In his framing keynote, Dr Qu Dongyu, Director General of FAO, further outlined the food security challenge in Africa, and considered the key actions needed to create a food system that nourishes Africa and leaves no one behind. The SOFI 2020 report, he said, “paints a worrisome picture of the food security situation in Africa”. Even before COVID-19, “over 600 million people experienced moderate or severe food insecurity” in Africa. The continent “has the highest prevalence of undernourishment, more than twice the global average, and the fastest growth in hunger compared to other regions”. The situation is compounded by additional pressures, such as Fall armyworm, locusts and climate change, while there is a very real danger of the present public health crisis becoming a continental food crisis.

To overcome these and other challenges outlined in the SOFI 2020 report, Dr Dongyu urged key actors to “work together in new ways” to transform the food system, not only to feed growing populations, but to “provide healthy and affordable diets in a way that is economically profitable and environmentally sustainable”. New technologies, increased innovation, R&D and enabling policy environments will also be essential to achieving these goals, he concluded.

Joining the conversation, other panellists were similarly keen to emphasize the value and importance of good nutrition. “We don’t just want to talk about feeding Africa”, said Dr Njuki, “we want to talk to about nourishing Africa”, which means putting “our traditional cereals, our fruits and our vegetables” at the heart of African diets. Indeed, participants all agreed that indigenous nutrient-dense foods must be central to food system conversations and strategies aimed at driving health improvements.

There are also significant economic gains to be had from investing in nutrition. According to Mr Simeon Ehui, Regional Director for Sustainable Development for Africa at the World Bank, malnutrition and obesity not only impact health but hit national economies hard. “Today, approximately 2 billion people are overweight and obese. In sub-Saharan Africa, about one third of all children under five are stunted, and our studies…estimate that child stunting in [the region] reduces country GDP by 9% on average.”

To achieve the desired investment in nutrition, Mr Ehui urged for a repurposing of public expenditure in the agri-food sector to incentivize production. While subsidies have previously favoured carbs over nutrients, and while investment is targeted at climate-smart agricultural innovations, what we need now is “public investment that supports nutrient-smart” and nutrient-first agriculture.

Elsewhere, Hon Dr Gerardine Mukeshimana, Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, described how the Rwandan Government has implanted a range of programs to boost rural nutrition. These measures include developing kitchen gardens, free milk for school children from low-income families, and artificial fortification in certain foods. A COVID-19 support package is also targeting SMEs hit hard by the pandemic, with investment in post-harvest facilities, roads and infrastructure to reduce the cost of production and, in turn, increase affordability for consumers.

But as Dr Martin Fregene, Director of Agriculture and Agro-Industry at AfDB, concluded, “the brain is the best form of infrastructure. We should prioritize nutrition and invest in brain infrastructure!”

Partners