#nutritionreport: It’s time to put our health at the heart of food systems

Children at a project we support in Bangladesh (photo: Darren Fletcher/Save the Children)
Children at a project we support in Bangladesh (photo: Darren Fletcher/Save the Children)

You’ve got to admit even in a world drowning in facts, the four below from the 2015 Global Nutrition Report are really staggering:

  1. 794 million people do not get the energy they need from their food.
  2. 2 billion do not get the nutrients they need from their food.
  3. 1.9 billion are overweight or obese.
  4. No country is immune to the serious economic and social burdens of malnutrition.

Together these facts mean that one in three people are not benefiting from the food they need. When the failure is this big, it can only mean one thing: there are serious problems with the systems that bring us our food.

Wherever you live, your country’s food systems are simply not delivering the right quality of food, in the right quantity, at the right price. To the detriment of one in three people’s health.

This is no trifling matter (excuse the awful pun) – countries can lose up to 11% of GDP as a result of maternal and child undernutrition. Meanwhile, up to 20% of governments’ health budgets are being eaten up  by obesity and its related diseases.

Given that an estimated 10% of all human ingenuity is dedicated to getting us our food, you’d be forgiven for expecting better. Want to know what’s wrong? This year’s Global Nutrition Report is a good place to start.

For me, the biggest innovation of this year’s Global Nutrition Report is its focus on food systems. A food system is everything involved in the conversion of natural resources – including sunlight, water and CO2 – into the food we eat. It includes researching, growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, distributing, marketing, trading, consuming, and disposing of waste.  So everything from ‘farm to flush’.

The Global Nutrition Report’s food systems approach adds to our understanding of the links between food, environmental sustainability and human health. It explores the marked shift in global diets towards the consumption of energy-dense food, high in fat and sugar, but low in micronutrients.And radically, it places a responsibility for fixing the world’s high rates of undernutrition, rocketing obesity rates, and climate change at the doorstep of the people with the power to influence our misfiring food systems.

A systems approach makes spotting the underlying reasons for malnutrition far easier. Causes of malnutrition – such as food’s price, safety, wastage, composition, and marketing – become visible; as does the food system’s impact upon environmental degradation, income inequality, time scarcity and market structures.

The Global Nutrition Report, however, is far from a problem merchant. In fact, the report’s authors propose a set of outcome indicators which could help policy-makers, duty-bearers and citizens build food systems with nutritional health and sustainability at their very heart. The report also provides a menu of food system policy interventions that show promise in creating a better nourished, healthier, more prosperous world.

It’s beyond doubt that opportunities to reduce the prevalence of malnutrition through food system reform are currently being missed. It’s exciting then that at the Rio Olympics next year the Government of Brazil will invite Heads of State to the next Nutrition for Growth event to intensify policies that promote environments that encourage healthy and adequate diets. And we at Save the Children will be working with our partners to ensure this Nutrition for Growth event generates specific political and financial commitments, ambitious enough to attain global nutrition commitments, including Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals and the WHA 2025 Nutrition Targets.

 

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Comments

  • Simon Wright

    From farm to flush, it is crazy if we don’t prioritise health. But more profit is to be made from cheap, poor quality, intensively farmed food than from a good variety for a healthy diet. Does it mean that regulation is the answer?

  • Fran Roberts

    Perhaps regulation is the answer? But this needn’t be nanny state. There are plenty of subtle things that can be done that’ll benefit our health without hurting our pockets. For example, nutrition education, marketing restrictions, product reformulation, targeted taxes and/or subsides and food labelling.

    Yes there’s been plenty of profit made out of food through the addition of sugars, fats and salt, but there’s evidence the tide is turning. Good luck to people like @jamieoliver who’re actually doing something about this: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/106651

  • Fran Roberts

    Also, remember there are still at least 794 million people who’re not getting enough energy from their food. So there’s plenty of opportunities left for innovation and enterprise, providing business is stewarded to deliver the right types of food to those currently so poorly served.

  • Apio Benardate Okiria

    It’s really unfortunate about those statistics. As a citizen in a low developing country, our food system is increasingly becoming market oriented. This alone affects the system so great it is enough to contribute greatly to malnutrition.

    Ugandan citizen.