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7 March 2018

Born undernourished, die undernourished: We have to break that curse!

Growing Nutrient-rich Crops for Kenyan Children

Photo Credit: Fintrac Inc. via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

This was the concluding remark by Dr Jessica Fanzo in her inspiring presentation at the Third Global Food Security Conference in Cape Town, this last December 2017.

I attended the conference on behalf of SIANI and SLU Global. The conference was big and very well organised. I found numerous themes in this conference that relate directly with our work at SIANI and SLU.

On the first day, I attended part of the symposium on “Changing food systems and nutrition. Do we have the concepts and data to understand, track and anticipate the links?”

I could see the inspiring presentation by Dr Jessica Fanzo from Johns Hopkins University, USA.  I really enjoyed her presentation. She is an engaged speaker who presented lots of data regarding the change of diets and nutrition not only in Africa, but globally.  I was very surprised when she said in her introduction that Africa has one of the best diets in the world, especially because it is lagging behind high processed foods. That is very good, and I didn’t know that!

At a food fair in Luwingu, Zambia, in April 2017, women display items they regularly forage and cultivate.

Photo by Joe Nkadaani/CIFOR via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Show me the data!

By 2050, our Earth will have 9.8 billion inhabitants, and half of them will be living in cities. With this urbanization, we will get nutrition transitions, and health changes as well.  What is a nutrition transition? According to this FAO page, nutrition transition is the result of a series of changes in diet, physical activity, health and nutrition, usually leading to obesity.

Obesity: In Africa, there is a rise in adult obesity, especially female obesity. Obesity is a non-communicable disease burden and the health system is not prepared for this

Malnutrition: Malnutrition in all its forms is large scale and universal problem. In children, 23 per cent or 155 million of the world’s children are stunted. On the other hand, 41 million children are overweight.

At a global level, 1 billion people go to bed hungry, 1 billion people eat healthy diets. This means there are 5 billion people sitting in the middle and that nobody focuses on.

Economic access to food

According to Dr Fanzo’s data, the economic access to food is an important issue for poor families which spend between 60 to 70 percent of their income in food, especially cereals with less nutrition

All these figures seem unacceptable to me!

Have you thought on where do people get their food?  Dr Fanzo said that “It depends!”. Poor people usually get food from their own production, while urban and richer households buy more processed foods

Potential solutions:

  1. Maximize entry points for nutritious food, and minimize exit points for nutritious foods
  2. Support small/medium holder farmers: they are more biodiverse, and the custodians of a diverse nutrition. 53 to 81 percent of key micronutrients are produced by small/medium farms.
  3. Improve food environments by avoiding food deserts, and also food swamps with junk foods.
  4. Reformulate foods by removing trans-fat, reduce sugars and salt. For example, in Chile, there is a label on junk food, which is banned to be advertised for children watching TV, and not sold in schools.
  5. Create demand for healthy foods, with knowledge creation, mass media campaigns, and positive reinforcement. Food prices are not aligned with the dietary guidelines. Only through subsidized programs. Prices only reflect our willingness to pay. Prices should reflect the nutrition and needs.

Fasting food

Picture by SarahTz via flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Do we have the data?

According to Prof David Tschirley, Chair of the session, the answer is “Yes, there is data, but we have to increase the quality, but also interpretation”. He said that “multi-disciplinarity should be improved”. Multi-disciplinarity refers to working with multiple disciplines (e.g. social sciences, humanities, life sciences, engineering, etc.), and it is supposed to be an important approach leading to innovation.

This brings me back to my master and PhD studies, where I could have lots of data from my research, but it was sometimes difficult to interpret the results from my own perspective and knowledge. It would have been great to see my results under other perspectives.

Importance of the speed of change

Prof David Tschirley emphasized the importance of change, but more important is the speed of change, with its implications for food and health. What does this mean? I could imagine that in many difficult situations like in war and forced migration, the change in food for the people has been radical and too fast not allowing them to gradually adjust. But, I don’t think this is something we can control at all. What to do then?

Use of data for driving policy and change

Prof David Tschirley mentioned that it is important to use the data to drive policy and change, and to link research and policy. I found this very relevant and connected to the work that SIANI has been doing by trying to link the results of research to policy, which in turn will result in actions and change. This means to me, that SIANI is in the right track to improve food systems and nutrition. In connection to this, a question came up on the role of the media and the private sector to mobilise change. The media and the private sector have a significant impact on our food systems, and our link to both should be strengthened.

A question came into my head for which I don’t have an answer yet; but I think this is a question that I would like to make myself more often: How can we make the best use of our abilities and network to mobilise change in food systems and nutrition?

At the end of this session my first general reflection is that the work of SIANI is highly relevant for the improvement of our food systems and nutrition. I could see many links and connections in this conference with the work of SIANI. As an academic working at SLU, my second general reflection is that the relation between SIANI and SLU is quite significant (especially for SLU, I think) in finding ways to relate research and policy; and this should be strengthened. We need each other. The challenge ahead is to find creative ways to keep this great work going on breaking the curse of malnutrition.

Margarita Cuadra blogs about the Third Global Food Security Conference in Cape Town, this last December 2017.