Poor health and losses in productivity caused by malnutrition are costing the global economy US$500 per person per year, or a staggering $3.5 trillion annually, according to a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Many communities rely on foods that do not meet their nutritional requirements, and when faced with food price shocks, poor families often cut out nutrient-rich foods like milk. The 2013 edition of FAO’s annual State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report, released today, underlines the need to ensure all the institutions and people responsible for producing and processing food “align to support good nutrition”.
The report also provides an overview of the linkages between agriculture, quality food, health and the economy, emphasizing that “agriculture and the entire food system... can contribute much more to the eradication of malnutrition”. But while discussions on these linkages have been taking place for at least three decades, the problem of malnutrition remains unresolved.
Malnutrition comes in a variety of forms: undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity. Two billion people in the world suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, such as anaemia, for example, and more than a billion people are overweight and prone to chronic and life-threatening illnesses like diabetes.
The report urges policymakers to address malnutrition through changes in food systems, public health and education, as well as improvements in supply chains and agricultural productivity.
John Hoddinott, a senior researcher at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), told IRIN that the 2013 SOFA report “gets many things right: that malnutrition imposes high costs on individuals and societies, that addressing malnutrition requires multisectoral approaches, and that agriculture is essential for better nutrition.”
But Hoddinott - who authored several 2008 studies in the Lancet showing that inexpensive nutrition interventions can reduce infant and maternal mortality and boost economic growth in developing countries - has some reservation about the report.
He says SOFA “has less to say about the incentives needed at all points in the supply chain to ensure healthy food is available and accessible for all.”
For instance, rapid agricultural and economic growth has not translated into a significant reduction in child malnutrition in India, which has the largest population of undernourished children in the world. Various explanations such as economic and gender inequality have been offered, says SOFA, but the phenomenon remains "largely unexplained" and needs more research.
Lawrence Haddad, head of the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) says his problem with all reports that consider the linkages between agriculture and nutrition is that they do not talk enough about how to provide incentives to the agriculture sector to improve nutrition.
He said in an email, “We know WHY it is important, and there are plenty of opportunities (the WHAT), but they are only seen as opportunities by nutrition people, not by agriculture people. We need research to better understand institutional drivers, incentives and barriers.”
The 2013 SOFA recognizes that knowledge about many of the issues covered in the report remains incomplete. Many countries lack basic data and indicators for evaluating and monitoring the effectiveness of initiatives attempting to improve food quality.
And the report points out that there are still many questions about the effectiveness of home gardens, the role of gender, the fortification of food with micronutrients, technological innovations, biodiversity and the role of local foods in improving nutrition.
There are also gaps in researchers’ understanding of consumer choice and nutritional outcomes. "Concepts such as 'dietary diversity' and 'healthy diets' remain fuzzy and difficult to measure objectively," the report says.