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2 February 2018

4 ways nutrition can foster sustainable development

Food vendor at AUD Elementary School, Nigeria ready to serve pupils with orange-fleshed sweetpotato.

It is striking that every third person in the world suffers from malnutrition. Present in all countries, independently of income level, malnutrition takes different forms, including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency and obesity.

People who are malnourished perform poorly at work and at school, struggling through their lives. Malnutrition hampers brain development and health, manifesting in diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular, chronic respiratory diseases and cancer. Healthcare costs as well as loss of working hours and productivity are heavy burdens on our economies.

At this year’s Annual Meeting we have followed the nutrition trail to see how better nutrition can unlock sustainability pathways. This post shares the highlights brought by the speakers at the event.

1. Better nutrition – less deforestation

Nonette Royo, Executive Director of the recently launched International Land and Forest Tenure Facility has previously worked with deforestation in West Kalimantan. There, many poor members of the local community sell timber obtained through illegal logging to pay for health care. Backtracking the chain of events, Nonette and her colleagues decided to use health as an entry point to combat deforestation.

Health in Harmony, the NGO Nonette collaborated with, set up a community hospital in the area. This health emergency intervention was combined with promotion of agroforestry and fish farming, which deliver highly nutritious foods and provide extra cash. As a result, the health of the community improved, and deforestation rates dropped remarkably.

This example from Kalimantan shows how paying more attention to nutrition, health and well-being can spark creativity and open unexpected pathways to sustainable resource management. “Taking a wider perspective, including nutrition and health, offers a way to think outside of the box and connect seemingly non-related issues,” says Nonette Royo.

2. Focus on nutrition – get out of protracted crisis

Pedro de Figuerido, who works at the Unit for Humanitarian Assistance at the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), frankly admits nutrition has not been a priority when it comes to humanitarian aid. However, many ongoing armed conflicts and protracted crises with millions of displaced, point to the conclusion that humanitarian aid requires new strategies.

Following the recommendations from the World Humanitarian Summit 2016, Figuerido and his unit started to approach crises through resilience thinking. Their analysis concluded: working with nutrition can create an interface between humanitarian aid and long-term development. This strategy might provide a way out of protracted crises.

One has to understand that food supplies delivered by humanitarian aid mostly consist of carbohydrates. This food lacks the necessary vitamins people need to stay healthy, as a result the nutritional status of refugees deteriorates very fast. Poor nutrition affects health, so, it is crucial that refugees have access to nutritious food because if you are sick, recovery, rehabilitation and integration in a new community will be backbreaking.

Uganda, the country that received the most refugees worldwide, has been widely acknowledged for its refugee integration strategy. Here, the newly arrived can get a piece of land, where they can grow food and establish themselves. As a result, 78% of refugees in rural settlements are engaged in agricultural activities, many of whom are able to start their businesses. This approach sees refuges as independent economic actors, not as beneficiaries and has also been successfully employed by FAO in Ethiopia, where the UN agency works with refugee rehabilitation through afforestation.

Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash.

3. Preventing childhood obesity  – avoiding the future global health catastrophe

Paulina Nowicka, Senior Researcher at Karolinska Institutet presented cutting-edge research about childhood obesity, a type of malnutrition. It appears childhood obesity rates are increasing globally, while the prevalence of underweight children is declining. The greatest increase in obesity rates is occurring in Asia, particularly among the Pacific island nations, like Nauru and Palau. Social inequality is the greatest driver of childhood obesity and there are stark manifestations even in affluent countries, like the UK and Sweden.

Obesity negatively impacts all body organs and is related to development of such diseases as multiple sclerosis, coronary heart disease and almost all types of cancer. Paulina shared eresented elained how vidence showing that because of the extreme social stigma, obese children have worse quality of life than children with cancer.

Another eye-opening finding presented by Paulina was about maternal health: mothers who are over-stressed and depressed are not able to read appetite cues of their babies and end up feeding them, even though they are not really hungry.

How to deal with childhood obesity? Research shows that treatment is most effective in the early stages (0 – 5 years). In fact, chances for success diminish massively as children grow older. Although education produces the greatest results, improving dietary habits and physical activity remain viable treatment alternatives.

4. Private sector – a powerful ally in the fight against malnutrition

Nestlé is the largest food and drink company in the world. Annelie Barkelund, Communications Director at Nestlé Sweden, shared the company’s ambitious plan to change the way it produces food. Launched in support of the Sustainable Development Goals, the plan consists of 42 commitments, 15 of which are connected to nutrition. One example is a commitment to reduce the amount of added sugar in Nestlé’s products by 5% by 2020. “In Europe alone, reaching this target will mean we will remove at least 18000 tonnes of sugar from products,” according to the company.

Scientists who work with product development at Nestlé came up with a food chemistry innovation meant to reduce sugar content without affecting the taste. “One team of scientists made the sugar structure hollow, so when the sugar melts on the tongue you get the same taste sensation, but with 40% less sugar,” Annelie Barkelund explains.

She continues: “Substantial sugar reduction is a difficult thing to do. Easy at the start, reducing sugar content continuously and substantially inevitably leads to sacrifice in taste.” And if the taste is bad, people will not buy the product, and Nestlé’s intended health vision won’t be achieved.

In addition to its sugar reduction campaign, Nestlé is planning to include more wholegrains, vegetables, nuts and seeds in its foods. The company also plans to work with food fortification to address deficiencies in zinc, iron, vitamin E, and iodine in low-income communities. Considering the size of its operation and the impact, Nestlé and other food producers can potentially make a huge difference.

Would like to know more about this topic? Check out this year’s HLPE Report on Food Security and Nutrition!

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