Ending hunger, ensuring nutrition by 2030

Ending hunger should include making sure that nutritional standards are met in each country in the world by 2030

Anna Lartey

Published: 4:57 PM September 14, 2015

Updated: 12:46 PM September 21, 2015

While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) started from ground zero, creating a baseline for global hunger and poverty targets, the sustainable development goals (SDGs) or Global Goals will hit the ground running and propelled by over a decade of lessons learned.

Given this experience, the coming years offer unprecedented potential for human development.

With respect to nutrition, the current discourse and action are informed by a number of strategies and approaches which evolved over the course of the MDGs.

Nutrition has captured global attention and has remained a featured agenda item for most development partners. A number of international initiatives, multi-stakeholder processes and commitments add fuel to the fire, including the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement (2009), the Global Nutrition for Growth Compact (2013), the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s Zero Hunger Challenge (2012), and the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2).

Food systems for nutrition

Held jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in November 2014 in Rome, ICN2 convened almost 170 member-states to address the multiple challenges of malnutrition.

The conference produced two outcomes – the Rome Declaration on Nutrition, which outlines current challenges and commits to addressing them in the coming decade, and a complementary Framework for Action, which lists 60 actions that countries may select from to guide national nutrition strategies.

A key message from ICN2 was that food systems around the world are changing rapidly and becoming more complex. Recent trends in industrialization, globalization, and commercialization have profound implications for what foods are being produced, the degree to which they are being processed, and how people are consuming them.

This message has been broadcast ever more loudly by the international nutrition community in recent years. It is in large part a reflection of mounting concern over the impact and sustainability of current consumption and production patterns.

Although commercialization and specialization in agricultural production, processing, and retailing have enhanced efficiency throughout the global food system, increasing year-round availability and affordability of a diverse range of foods, “double” or even “triple” burdens of malnutrition are also increasingly ubiquitous. Today, most countries suffer from some combination of stunting, anemia, and/or obesity and overweight. (READ: Too little, too much: The problem with double burden malnutrition)

The negative environmental effects associated with these patterns of food system change include land degradation, unsustainable water use and heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, to name a few. They present a major concern not only in regard to their obvious agroecological impact, but also with respect to increased risk of food insecurity and poverty, with subsequent insidious implications for nutrition and health. (READ: How climate change threatens our food security)

As such, the quality of global, national, and local food systems is increasingly considered reflective of the integral role played by agriculture in food security and nutrition outcomes. (READ: PH agriculture: Why is it important?)

FOR THE FUTURE. Children are oriented on the proper health and nutrition in several nutrition programs in the Philippines. Photo by Jodesz Gavilan/Rappler

These include increasing support to small-scale food producers, improving environmental sustainability, increasing resilience in production practices, and reducing food waste and losses.

Ensuring nutrition does not get lost

Of the 17 SDGs and 169 targets proposed by the UN, only Global Goal 2 includes a provision on nutrition. That said, the fact that it embeds sustenance in the context of food security and sustainable agriculture is an achievement, as it acknowledges the crucial role played by food-based approaches to nutrition.

Consolidating nutrition, food security, and agriculture into the same goal increases accountability with respect to health and environment. It also impacts on agricultural production practices and food system development.

The risk of this Global Goal phrasing is that the concept of “improved nutrition” is conflated with the conventional hunger reduction construct, with the focus defaulting to food quantity and national calorie availability, as opposed to the quality of available foods and household or individual access to them.

This is a common problem in food security discourse. Although the original 1996 World Food Summit definition of food security included “ensuring year-round access to adequate, safe, diverse, and nutrient-rich foods for all,” over the years, the concept has been reduced in many contexts to gross calorie availability. As a result, we now often talk about “food security and nutrition” to safeguard the latter from being forgotten.

How can we ensure that the nutrition component of the Global Goals is upheld and not overshadowed?

Two suggestions, both based on the premise that consideration of food quality (as opposed to quantity) is key.

First, agricultural productivity must pay attention to nutrient-dense foods.

Second, countries must recognize that there are multiple entry points for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems.

There are many ways to improve the quality of foods available in a given food environment. Given the current rapid pace of commercialization and specialization in agricultural production, a wide range of opportunities are available.

Identifying entry points

The ICN2 Framework for Action includes a section on “Sustainable food systems for promoting healthy diets,” with more recommendations than almost any other section. This ranges from the promotion of crop diversification, establishing national food or nutrient-based standards, strengthening local food production and processing to exploring regulatory or voluntary instruments for promoting healthy diets.

The broad scope of the recommendations is indicative of all the different ways to increase the nutrition sensitivity of food and agriculture systems. That said, the trick is to identify which of these multiple entry points will provide the most leverage, given sociocultural preferences, the political climate, and the surrounding policy landscape.

FOR FARMERS. How can the Global Goals help food producers who themselves suffer from hunger? File photo by Rappler

Across the board, the emphasis is on using policy levers to increase availability and affordability of diverse, nutritious foods, thus making food systems more nutrition-sensitive. Environmentally-viable production practices which improve agricultural sustainability with subsequent long-term positive implications for food security and nutrition – are an important part of the picture.

Measuring progress

Global Goal 2 opens a wide door in terms of policy and program entry points for improving nutrition through agriculture. However, in terms of nutrition monitoring and evaluation, the parameters are narrower.

To date, there is broad consensus on which indicators best measure progress in critical nutrition outcomes. Recommended by the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN) as a suite, these include stunting, wasting, overweight, exclusive breastfeeding, low birth weight, and anemia prevalence in women of reproductive age. These indicators are used to assess progress towards the World Health Assembly global nutrition targets and to estimate the percentage of national budget allocated to nutrition.

They are all being promoted for inclusion under this goal. Also included within the recommended suiteof nutrition indicators agreed upon by UNSCN is the Minimum Dietary Diversity—Women (MDD-W), specified as “the percentage of women, 15-49 years of age, who consume at least 5 out of 10 defined food groups.”

The MDD-W is a key indicator that links all the components of SDG 2 by highlighting nutritional quality of food intake, while emphasizing the role of agriculture in promoting good health.

It is important to note that overall, the development and validation of food-based indicators has lagged conspicuously behind other types of nutrition-related metrics.

For the most part, these indicators have not fundamentally changed since the 1970s. They still measure availability and access to calories reflecting the reductionist food security view mentioned above.

Increasing demand for and availability of globally comparable, routinely collected indicators of diet adequacy is imperative for holding agriculture and food systems to a higher, more health-centred standard.

Global Goal 2 – ending hunger by 2030 – offers a tremendous opportunity in this regard. – Rappler.com

Anna Lartey is Director of the Nutrition Division in the Economic and Social Development Department at the Food And Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

This is a part of a series of pieces tackling each Global Goal from United Nations experts. Want to join the conversation? Join us on September 26 at Innovation +Social Good!

Author photo from the FAO.