When you’re hungry it’s difficult to think about anything else. When you don’t know the source of your next meal, It’s difficult to concentrate on school or work. That’s a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people. Sufficient food alone is not enough, it’s also important for diets to contain the right nutrients to ensure a healthy life. Almost half of all children who die before their 5th birthday die because of poor nutrition. Despite this, the number of people who are undernourished is increasing, rising from ~ 777 million people in 2015 to 815 million in 2016. The good news is that we can end hunger but we need to tackle this challenge by pulling on several levers – improved agricultural practices, breastfeeding, advocating for improved diets, to name a few.
More than 800 million people in the world suffer from chronic hunger, with malnutrition linked to 3 million, or 45%, of child deaths under five years old. Even if children do make it past the age of 5, the early chronic malnutrition they have suffered — indicated by “stunting,” or being too short for one’s age — leads to lifelong physical and cognitive damage. Last year, 155 million children suffered from stunting. And this situation not only affects individuals but also affects entire economies of poor countries, resulting in an estimated loss of 2-16% of GDP each year!
To make matters worse, the agricultural production required to create long-term food and nutrition security in poor countries is at risk: Droughts, floods, and other forms of extreme weather (and crop diseases and pests associated with such events) can hurt farmers in countries already vulnerable to food and nutrition shortages.
By 2050, the world’s population is projected to reach almost 9.8 billion people- agricultural development is key to feeding the population, reducing poverty and curbing inequality. Growth in the global agriculture sector is two to four times more effective for overall economic growth than growth in any other sector. On top of these returns to investing in agriculture, it turns out that $1 invested in nutrition leads to a whopping $16 in returns to the economy!
It might surprise you to know that most of the people who suffer from poor nutrition in the world happen to be producers of food, too. So, a combination of supporting small farmers who struggle the most to survive in leaner years, investing in sustainable, climate-conscious agriculture,and comprehensive nutrition planning are all crucial to reaching an end to hunger.
With the conclusion of the MDGs in 2015, the percentage of undernourished people declined from 19% in 1990 to 11% in 2014., even though global population rose by 2 billion during that time. However, since 2014, the number of undernourished people in the world has risen reaching 815 million people in 2016, with the vast majority of them living in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. And yet, as a global community, we have the tools at hand to ensure food security, bolstered by growing agricultural development, across the world.
Natural and man-made challenges have slowed our ability to implement these tools effectively This is particularly the case in regions most vulnerable to extreme weather conditions and exacerbated by poor governance, underinvestment in long-term development and coping mechanisms, and conflict. Since the beginning of this year, 20 million people have even been under risk of full-on famine in countries most affected by this dangerous cocktail of factors.
To start with, many of those who are most vulnerable to food shortage depend on agriculture for their livelihoods – 65% of poor working adults in the world make their living from agriculture, and this is true of sub-Saharan Africa on its own as well. And economic growth in agriculture is 2 to 4 times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors such as mining, utilities, and services. Those figures jump to 11 times more effective in sub-Saharan Africa.
Agricultural development is not only a powerful tool for tackling food shortage but also in reducing poverty. In 2017, about 16% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa came from the agricultural sector. This is despite the fact that most of the continent has yet to reach its Malabo Declaration* target of investing 10% of its expenditures in the agricultural sector. Additionally, agricultural development must be sustainable and climate-friendly if it is not, we put food security further at risk in countries vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. A wide array of innovations are already being applied to managing agricultural systems and both producer and consumer behaviour to ensure long-term sustainability, and these require further investment and support.
Social protection programmes, too, are crucial to providing food security during periods of shocks that may arise from extreme weather, conflict, and other sources of instability and disruption. Cash transfers are among the types of social protection that have been found to be most effective in coping with such risks, while newer innovations such as drought insurance continue to be improved on to provide effective relief to farmers dealing with sometimes chronic and sometimes unexpected downturns in weather.
Besides providing risk-coping support, it is important to encourage the production capacity of smallholder farmers with the help of new technologies and technical support, and to encourage youth and women – who are often the most marginalized groups among already marginalized smallholder farmers – in enhancing their production capacity. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation showed that if women farmers across the world have the same access to inputs as men, their farm yields will increase by 20 to 30% and lift 100-150 million people out of hunger. This is an opportunity, surely, that cannot be missed in a world where so many millions of people live with a daily shortage of food.
*The Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods was adopted by African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government during the AU’s 2014 Year of Agriculture and Food Security, and it includes a number of commitments aiming to boost agricultural development and end hunger in the continent by 2025, including a commitment to investing 10% of public expenditures on agriculture.
While food security drives the resolution of hunger, food in itself is not enough – it must be nutritious food, leading to a basic level of health and growth during the course of an individual’s life. When children suffer from chronic malnutrition, they are likely to experience lifelong physical and cognitive damage as a result. When girls and women who are malnourished become pregnant, this perpetuates the vicious cycle by impairing their babies’ chances of survival and healthy development. Stunting in childhood leads to earnings of less than 20% as adults relative to comparable adults who never suffered from stunting, while also leading to a 33% higher likelihood of living in poverty in adulthood. All of these effects hurt economies, too, with a 2-16% annual loss to GDP estimated from undernutrition in poor countries (based on a 2014 African Union Commission study of four countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, Swaziland, and Uganda).
Income is one determinant of malnutrition but there are many others that require attention: food insecurity, diets lacking in diversity, high rates of infectious diseases, and inappropriate infant feeding and care practices. Food and financial crises, as well as conflict and natural disasters, have worsened undernutrition in many regions as well. Today, almost 3 million children die globally each year from conditions associated with malnutrition and, in 2016, 34% of children in Africa were stunted* – representing one third of the world’s stunted children. Indeed, although the prevalence of stunting has declined globally, Africa has has seen the unfortunate phenomena of growth in population outpacing progress – the number of stunted children there increased from 53 million to 59 million between 2005 and 2016.
The picture is not all bleak, however. We now know that a 1,000 day window between pregnancy and age two provides a unique opportunity when adequate care and nutrition can reduce the risk of future malnutrition and the irreversible harm it causes. Furthermore, we know what types of care and nutrition interventions are necessary to prevent this harm, and that investing during these early years is one of the most cost-effective and powerful tools in reducing poverty, with estimates of its economic return being 16:1!
For a long time, the development community has focused on ensuring that children simply survive – but now that more and more children are living past their infancy (thanks to advances in fighting diseases, for example), we need to focus on their quality of life. Too many children are simply not receiving the nutrition required to lead healthy and productive lives, and we know the interventions necessary to stop this from happening. They include: vitamin A supplementation for children, promotion of good infant and young child nutrition and hygiene practices, antenatal micronutrient supplementation, intermittent preventive treatment of malaria for pregnant women, iron folic acid supplements for adolescent girls, staple food fortification, pro-breastfeeding social policies, national breastfeeding promotion campaigns, and treatment of severe acute malnutrition.
Recognizing that we can and should take action on nutrition, the World Health Assembly in 2012 agreed on 6 Global Nutrition Targets to be achieved by 2025:
- 40% reduction in the number of children under 5 who are stunted
- 50% reduction of anemia in women of reproductive age
- 30% reduction in low birth weight
- No increase in childhood overweight
- Increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months up to at least 50%
- Reduce and maintain childhood wasting to less than 5%
The lives of 860,000 children every year could be saved by treating severe acute malnutrition, and yet less than 1% of Official Development Assistance in the world is spent on nutrition interventions. Increasing this percentage is crucial to not only saving but enhancing the lives of millions of children in the world today.
*Stunting is a measure of being too short for one’s age, indicating a level of chronic malnutrition likely to lead to permanent physical and cognitive damage.