Industries in Depth

6 ways we can take action on malnutrition, according to the UN

pictured is a statue of Nelson Mandela - Nelson Mandela International Day is marked every 18 July

The focus of this year's Nelson Mandela International Day is to improve malnutrition. Image: Unsplash/Matthew TenBruggencate

Katharine Rooney
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • Nelson Mandela International Day is marked every 18 July.
  • This year, the focus is on malnutrition.
  • In 2020, around a tenth of the world’s population was undernourished.
  • The UN is looking at ways we can improve access to high-quality food.

In 2020, around a tenth of the world’s population was undernourished.

With a United Nations goal of reaching zero hunger by 2030, that means we are a long way off course.

Ensuring food security is one of the key targets of this year’s Nelson Mandela International Day – an event that takes place every 18 July to mark and advance the societal contributions of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation is running the Each One Feed One campaign, encouraging South Africans to donate to a food distribution network to help their fellow citizens.

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How can we boost food security?

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened malnutrition, according to the 2021 edition of the UN report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, with economic disruption and broken supply chains exposing a clear weakness in global food systems.

The situation is exacerbating widespread malnutrition: 22% of children under five are stunted, which impacts not only their physical growth, but also cognitive development and future employment capabilities. According to the World Bank, countries lose an average of 7% of their per capita GDP because of childhood stunting.

The report recommends six pathways for improving global food security.

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1. Fostering peace-building alongside humanitarian aid

Many of the world’s most malnourished people live in war zones. One example of this is Yemen, where acute malnutrition has reached record levels since the start of a civil war in 2014, affecting half of children under five.

The erection of small-scale water treatment plants and irrigation systems has restored clean water, uncontaminated vegetables, and livelihoods.

In conflict conditions, food systems are frequently disrupted, making it very difficult for people to access nutritious food. The UN believes that emergency food assistance and water safety programmes need to be aligned with long-term socio-economic development and conflict resolution efforts in order to have sustainable impact.

this graph highlights the challenge of reaching the 2025 and 2030 nutrition targets
Conflict conditions make it harder for people to access nutritious food. Image: UN

2. Scaling up climate resilience across food systems

From wildfires to locusts, climate change is already affecting food security. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that this will worsen, with an increase in CO2 leading to crops with lower nutritional quality and heat stress creating greater food waste.

But food production also has an impact on the environment, with livestock in particular creating high levels of carbon emissions.

The UN report suggests that we need to move towards a “climate-positive future, in which people and nature can co-exist and thrive”. This could include better risk monitoring and resilience-building measures such as agricultural insurance for vulnerable households.

3. Strengthening the resilience of the most economically vulnerable

The world’s most vulnerable have been worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the social protection programmes implemented by governments were helpful, the report says, they should be in place in advance of any economic downturn, so that when such conditions arise, vulnerable populations are not left without a safety net and can still access nutritious food and a healthy diet.

The UN cites the success of a monthly food voucher programme in Ethiopia, with young families gaining regular access to fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs, and a bolstered cash transfer programme in Kyrgyzstan, which saw 74% of households increase their agricultural activity to provide fresh food at home – improving dietary diversity and nutritional outcomes.

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4. Reinventing the supply chain to lower the cost of nutritious foods

The report calls for government policies and incentives to help diversify production towards nutritious foods like fruit, vegetables and legumes. It also recommends the fortification of staple foods with vitamins and minerals as a way to supply whole populations with critical nutrients like iodine and iron.

With rapid rates of urbanization, it’s also important to shorten supply chains enough that city residents can still access fresh and nutritious food; redirecting consumption patterns that have led to rising levels of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases.

One effective strategy in tackling this problem is the AGRUPAR programme in Quito, Ecuador, where more than 4,400 urban gardens have been created, with 43% of produce sold in local food markets. Because this produce is travelling shorter distances, the cost to consumers is lowered.

5. Tackling poverty and structural inequalities

Inequality contributes to hunger, food insecurity and poor nutrition, especially in rural areas, where poverty rates are three times higher than in urban settings.

Integrating smallholder farmers into food value chains is one way of resetting the balance. Through improved technology and certification, these farmers have gained a foothold in the marketplace, increased profits and boosted the resilience of their crops by using sustainable production methods.

In Indonesia, for instance, 150,000 cocoa farmers have joined a sustainable value chain since 2014. It gives them increased access to financing and productivity-enhancing technology, as well as introducing traceability systems, nutrition education and farmer organizations.

Over a five-year period, cocoa yields increased by 73%, while empowered smallholders saw their incomes increase by more than 200%.

this graph shows the greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food product, with beef releasing the most emissions
Food production needs to be made more sustainable to limit climate impacts. Image: Our World in Data

6. Changing consumer behaviour to promote positive dietary habits

Poor nutrition doesn’t just impact health through starvation. It also leads to the kind of weight problems that trigger diabetes, poor heart health and musculoskeletal disorders.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), global obesity nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016, when more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight. By 2019, over 38 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese.

The WHO says that low- and middle-income countries are now facing a “double burden of malnutrition”, with undernutrition and obesity often co-existing even within households. Making healthy food choices is as important as access to food supply.

The UN urges restrictions on food marketing to children and cites the example of Chile, where such advertizing is highly regulated, and of the Republic of Korea, where “green food zones” prohibit the sale of foods with limited nutritional value within 200 metres of most schools.

Transforming global food systems is a tall order, but aid agencies are hoping that, as we reach the second half of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, there is motivation for change.

As the UN’s food security report says: “Future generations will only thrive as productive actors and leading forces in food systems if decisive action is taken to ensure that children are no longer deprived of their right to nutrition”.

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