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Ending malnutrition by 2030 is possible with an Olympian effort

December 10, 2021

Kundhavi Kadiresan is managing director, global engagement and innovation, at CGIAR, a global partnership of national and regional-level organizations focused on food, land, and water security. The views expressed in this guest commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.

While enough food is produced to feed everyone 1.5 times over, poor diets continue to hold the world back from reaching its full potential. The Covid-19 pandemic has set back the fight yet further.

This year’s Nutrition for Growth Summit, held in Tokyo this week, provided a platform from which to accelerate global progress towards ending malnutrition. The Summit was arguably one of the most important legacies of the London 2012 Olympics, and it has remained tied to the games — being held every four years in the Olympiad host country — ever since.

Malnutrition, exacerbated by climate change and pandemic-related restrictions, causes 11 million premature deaths a year with 3 billion people — particularly women and children — lacking access to safe, nutritious foods like fruit, vegetables, and animal-source protein.

At the same time, malnutrition has increased the global population’s vulnerability to health threats like Covid-19, with those who have diet-related conditions like heart disease or obesity at greater risk of succumbing to the virus.

Without urgent action to ensure good and proper nutrition as the foundation for greater resilience, diet-related health costs —  including foodborne illness — will likely exceed $1.3 trillion a year by 2030; while greenhouse gas emissions linked to unhealthy diets will add another $1.7 trillion.

Although evidence suggests that every dollar invested in better nutrition adds $16 to the local economy, just 0.5% of global aid is invested in improving diets – and even less is devoted to the research needed to make up ground. This must change, and it must change quickly, before the challenge of malnutrition becomes insurmountable and causes irreparable damage to global progress.

In recent decades, advances in agrifood science and technology have shown what a difference improved nutrition can make for the world’s most vulnerable people. From the millions of children at lower risk of vitamin deficiency thanks to nutrient-enriched staple crops and fish-based supplements to the women and families better able to afford nutritious diets thanks to cash transfers, investing in nutrition has multiplier benefits for households, communities, and economies.

But these innovations only scratch the surface. The fight against malnutrition needs more research and innovation to scale up new and existing solutions, and keep pace with the growing complexities created by climate change.

By investing $1 billion into nutrition-sensitive research initiatives, research organizations can make a start by improving the availability, affordability, and access to healthy and nourishing foods for hundreds of millions of people across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In the first instance, agricultural scientists need such long-term funding and commitments to fully understand the factors that influence food choices around the world and be able to make better use of existing and proven ways to improve diets.

With more data and evidence on the obstacles holding back households in low-income countries from eating more diverse diets, research can help to engineer a shift towards healthier, sustainable diets with benefits for up to 50 million people.

Beyond this, the research community can also help uncover new ways to stimulate demand and increase affordability can be scaled up elsewhere, eventually reshaping entire food systems.

Likewise, it is imperative we increase the production and consumption of the most healthful and sustainable foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes.

In low- and middle-income countries, families face multiple barriers to eating enough vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, including cost, availability, and a lack of refrigeration, which leads to the spoiling of perishable foods. By 2050, as many as 2 billion people across sub-Saharan Africa could have inadequate levels of fresh produce in their diets, leading to yet higher levels of micronutrient deficiencies and ill-health.

Avoiding this scenario is possible with dedicated commitments that improve food production as well as consumption. Improving agricultural biodiversity, for example, would increase the range of crops available by up to 40%, diversifying and increasing the supply and helping to drive down costs for 10 million people across 10 countries.

Another essential step towards reducing malnutrition and the global health burden of poor diets is improving the availability of safe and nutritious food supplies.

Meat, milk, eggs and other animal-source foods are a crucial source of nutrients in low-income countries yet are also responsible for an estimated 35% of all foodborne diseases, including salmonella and Campylobacter, a health burden comparable to that of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, or malaria.

As such, an integrated ‘One Health‘ approach, one that addresses the challenges and risks shared across species and with the environment, should be adopted by governments and policymakers to deliver optimum nutrition for human and livestock health.

A systematic transformation is needed at scale across the world, which is neither straightforward nor inexpensive to achieve, but to be successful, it must be by careful and evidence-based design.

The 2012 Olympic Games offered a valuable lesson in how proper investment and support can produce extraordinary results – it’s now time to turn those energies towards the global challenge of malnutrition.

As countries gathered in Tokyo for the latest edition of the Summit, which comes just months after the inaugural UN Food Systems Summit, they must continue to channel the same gold-standard dedication, innovation and investment if the world is to have any hope of ending malnutrition by 2030.

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