Alarm bells for a harsh reality – globally more and more individuals are starving and malnourished! And with COVID-19, one can expect it will dramatically worsen. The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are to be commended for tracking and updating the current status in their 320-page report titled “2020 The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World – Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets.” The report provides excellent insights on trends and understanding. However, the report should also sound the alarm bells for all stakeholders as the current five-year trend is going in the wrong direction.
One must ask, how many people need to starve and be malnourished before enlightenment leads to a change in strategic direction? The report foreword notes, “Five years after the world committed to end hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition, we are still off track to achieve this objective by 2030. Data tell us that the world is progressing neither towards SDG [Sustainable Development Goal] target 2.1, of ensuring access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food for all people all year round, nor towards target 2.2, of eradicating all forms of malnutrition.” The report notes “… almost 690 million people in the world (8.9% of the world population) are estimated to have been undernourished in 2019.”
The report findings are absolutely troubling though as it notes the sustainable development goal of zero hunger by 2030 is destined for failure. The trends for food security and nutrition have now trended the wrong direction since 2014. There appears to be zero confidence that the goal can be achieved going the current path. The foreword provides reasons. “There are many threats to progress. The 2017 and 2018 editions of this report showed that conflict and climate variability and extremes undermine efforts to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. In 2019, the report showed that economic slowdowns and downturns also undercut these efforts. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as unprecedented Desert Locust outbreaks in Eastern Africa, are obscuring economic prospects in ways no one could have anticipated, and the situation may only get worse if we do not act urgently and take unprecedented action.”
It adds, “… the trend reported in past editions of this report still stands: Since 2014, the number of hungry people worldwide has been slowly rising. The new estimate for 2019 has revealed that an additional 60 million people have become affected by hunger since 2014. If this trend continues, the number of undernourished people will exceed 840 million by 2030. Hence, the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger, even without the negative effects that COVID-19 will likely have on hunger. Preliminary projections based on the latest available global economic outlooks, also presented in this report, suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic may add an additional 83 to 132 million people to the ranks of the undernourished in 2020.”
Achieving food security and proper nourishment globally are complex, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional challenges; definitely not straightforward. But one might think that with such dire projections for outcomes, the United Nations would consider an adjustment or change in strategy. Rather, the report appears to champion that one double down for advancing a failing approach. Five years into a 15-year plan, the 2030 Agenda, with worsening results, one would think that wisdom would conclude it is time for a mandate for a change in approach. Maybe it is time to go back to the proven basics of adopting innovation and improving production efficiency with a focus on producing the most nutrient rich foods that are parts of a balanced diet.
The report highlights that many “… cannot afford the cost of healthy diets. Costly and unaffordable healthy diets are associated with increasing food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition, including stunting, wasting, overweight and obesity.” It notes hidden costs of “… diet-related health costs linked to mortality and diet-related non-communicable diseases are projected to exceed $1.3 trillion per year by 2030. The diet-related social cost of greenhouse gas emissions associated with current dietary patterns is estimated to reach more than $1.7 trillion per year by 2030.” It postulates about environmental impacts, sustainability considerations, important synergies with other SDGs, the need to look throughout the food system, making food supply chains work for vulnerable people, and that income is simply insufficient to afford healthy diets.
The report notes, “However, not all healthy diets are sustainable and not all diets designed for sustainability are always healthy.” And “To increase the affordability of healthy diets, the cost of nutritious foods must come down. The cost drivers of these diets are seen throughout the food supply chain, within the food environment, and in the political economy that shapes trade, public expenditure and investment policies. Tackling these cost drivers will require large transformations in food systems with no one-size-fits-all solution and different trade-offs and synergies for countries.
It notes “Trade policies affect the cost and affordability of healthy diets by altering the relative prices between imported and import-competing foods. Protectionary trade measures such as import tariffs, bans and quotas – together with input subsidy programs – have often been embedded in self-sufficiency and import substitution strategies. In low-income countries, this policy has protected and incentivized the domestic production of energy-dense foods, such as rice and maize, but often at the detriment of vitamin- and micronutrient-rich products (i.e. fruits and vegetables). This can have an adverse effect on the affordability of more nutritious foods. Non-tariff measures, such as sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures (SPS) and technical barriers to trade (TBT) can also negatively affect the affordability of diets, as for example, exporters and importers may face additional costs to comply with regulatory requirements, driving up the cost of trade.” One can infer that trade overall contributes to reduced food costs for consumers, and trade hurdles increase food costs for consumers.
Pragmatically it notes “… a healthy diet ensures that a person’s needs for macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates including dietary fibres) and essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are met, specific to their gender, age, physical activity level and physiological state.” And adds “The cost of a healthy diet is 60% higher than the cost of the nutrient adequate diet, and almost five times the cost of the energy sufficient diet.”
Then the lofty misguided focus that seems to transcend the United Nations and its member organizations in recent years, it says “To achieve the dietary patterns for healthy diets that include sustainability considerations, large transformative changes in food systems will be needed at all levels.” Adding more positively: “Reducing the cost of nutritious foods and increasing the affordability of healthy diets must start with a reorientation of agricultural priorities towards more nutrition-sensitive food and agricultural production. Public expenditures will need to be stepped up to enable many of the policy decisions and investments needed to raise productivity, encourage diversification in food production and ensure that nutritious foods are made abundantly available.”
An idealist transformation of the whole global food system toward a theoretical climate sensitive, sustainable system, in the next 10 years seems beyond imagination and reality. A vegetarian-oriented diet appears the United Nations organizations’ predisposition to meeting global nutritional needs. The prevalence of bias seems to grow more each year, almost in exact contrast to the ability to achieve zero hunger; maybe it is causative of outcomes.
Consider the apparent impact of the current direction. Taking away chemicals will not stop a locust infestation in Africa or devastating weed issues in Asia. Taking away biotech will not yield a drought resistant plants, nor more nutrient rich plants. Taking animal productivity products will not increase efficiency in meat and milk production. Taking away antibiotics will not heal a diseased or sick animal. Taking away innovation and technology is almost guaranteed to result in globally sustainable food insecurity and malnutrition. Each of these are proven tools that yield more nutrient rich foods more efficiently. Choices are being made, but they appear to be the wrong choices.
To those leading the United Nations organizations and their stakeholders, how about championing the proven basics of adopting innovation in agriculture? How about having a laser focus on advocating for increased production efficiency in those areas of need for the most nutrient rich foods – whether animals, vegetables, fruits or grains? It is time to focus on the proven basics rather than transformative changes to the global food systems.
Adopting innovation and product efficiency directly improve, through reduction, the environmental impact of agriculture. Innovation can lead to true sustainability for the pillar areas of climate, social and economic.
Destiny is a choice! The time is now for a change in strategic direction to potentially better advance toward zero hunger by 2030. The report does open the door for strategic redirection as it says “Our agencies stand firmly committed to support a shift that makes healthy diets affordable to all and contributes to the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition in children and adults. Our efforts shall ensure that this shift unfolds in a sustainable way, for people and the planet, and creates synergies to spur progress on other SDGs.” Thus, act now for the global societal good of achieving zero hunger and improved nutrition!