Linking the Dots: A “Food System” Approach to End Hunger and All Forms of Malnutrition

While hunger remains a scourge, a more complex nutrition problem is looming large. An estimated 820 million people, or 11 percent of those alive today, suffer from chronic undernourishment. But the number of obese people in the world has been growing since 2016, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 launched last month.

Micronutrient deficiencies and overweight affect vast swathes of the population, underscoring a lot of work we have to do to create healthier food systems for all. And all means all — some eight percent of the people living in Europe and North America do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, according to the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, FIES, a new indicator used in the report. It also showed more than half the people in Africa, where the population is growing faster than anywhere else, suffer moderate food insecurity, if not worse.

This is morally unacceptable. It also carries exorbitant economic costs.

What is happening and what is to be done? Why are markets not supplying what is needed, and how can we contribute to a better outcome? Here are a few thoughts to assemble the pieces of the puzzle together.

Are we producing enough food globally?

The short answer is yes. A recent modeling exercise we conducted together with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projected that agricultural productivity is expected to increase slightly faster than the 15 percent increase in the demand for food in the next decade, all with decelerating greenhouse gas emissions and without substantial expansion in land use. A longer answer would take note of the need to improve sustainability, particularly with greenhouse gas-intensive meat products, where productivity is lagging.

Are we producing food where it is most needed?

Here the answer is no. Most of the expected output and productivity gains through 2028 will be generated by developing countries in Latin America, reflecting the region’s greater investment and technological catch-up, as well as resource availability. Demand growth, meanwhile, will be strongest in Africa and South Asia. This highlights the important role of international trade in food security in a growing number food-importing countries, and why disruptions, uncertainties and trade tensions are unwelcome. It also underscores the importance of food-safety standards and nutritious quality of food being traded.

Do demand trends match global needs in terms of hunger and the prevalence of moderate food insecurity as flagged by FIES?

Alas, no. Per capita consumption of staple foods is expected to be stable over the next decade, as most of the world’s population doesn’t need more of them. Meat demand is expected to be strong in the Americas, while low income continues to constrain meat consumption in places like sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, despite robust global food supplies, the neediest regions will struggle to afford improved nutrition. Meanwhile, per capita consumption of sugar and vegetable oils is expected to rise, driven by urbanization and the shift to more processed foods. The combination of excessive calorie consumption, unbalanced diets and increasingly sedentary lifestyle implies a growing burden of overweight and obesity in more parts of the world.

Are production incentives aligned with the vision of a world free of hunger and all forms of malnutrition?

Absolutely not. Unfortunately, countries keep subsidizing products of low nutritious content, favoring staple foods over fresh and variegated produce. They fail to provide adequate and well-designed incentives for farmers to produce more nutritious products. This has a negative effect on nutrition and dietary diversity, often where they are most needed.

Do the above factors affect food prices?

It seems so. An innovative new study by Derek Headey and Harold Alderman from the International Food Policy Research Institute compared relative caloric prices, RCPs, for different food categories across 176 countries. They found that nutrient-dense foods like eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables can be very expensive in poorer countries, which makes it harder to diversify away from nutrient-sparse staples. In richer countries, unhealthy foods offer convenient and low-cost options. These findings, together with FAO’s own data on the geography of food supply and demand and the prevalence of all forms of malnutrition, cast light on where our greatest challenges lie.

Our current food systems are not delivering what is needed, pointing to drastic changes we need to make: better incentives for the world’s agricultural producers; better information to prod consumers into choosing healthier diets; sustainable trade with clear rules; and a big push toward integrating nutrition as part of food safety. This is the spadework needed to increase the resilience of the world’s poorest households and the health of everyone.

(with José Graziano da Silva, director-general of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)

This post originally appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News on August 5, 2019.

(Photo credit: Ivars Kukainis via Creative Commons)