5 ways Canada can impact global nutrition

A woman breast-feeds her young child in Senegal. Canada is one of the countries that has demonstrated leadership to invest in improving global nutrition. Photo by: Micronutrient Initiative

One in three members of the global population is malnourished. This is a huge problem, as nutrition is at the core of well-being. Good nutrition is a prerequisite for optimal health and education and is a key contributor to economic development. This problem exists in every country on the planet — yet the strategies or high-impact interventions available to resolve it are not being implemented due to lack of money, skills or political will.

The new Sustainable Development Goals, signed in New York this year, will be much harder, if not impossible, to attain in the face of malnutrition. Malnutrition threatens to erode the new goals laid down in the recent Group of 20 summit in Turkey and the upcoming COP21 climate summit in Paris.

But countries that are determined to reduce malnutrition can achieve their ambitions, according to the recently launched 2015 Global Nutrition Report. Investing in improved nutrition can have economic returns that outpace the U.S. stock market in recent decades. Investing $1 in high impact nutrition actions, such as exclusive breast-feeding, can yield up to $16 in economic benefits — a rate of return on investment that outperforms most stock markets.

Canada is one of the countries that has demonstrated leadership to invest in improving global nutrition. But, if we want every child to grow up healthy and happy, much more needs to be done.

This week, a panel consisting of government, NGO, academic and private sector representatives will meet in Toronto at The Hospital for Sick Children to launch the 2015 Global Nutrition Report and discuss key ways Canada can have an even greater impact on nutrition at home and around the world. By working together, we can help end the cause of 45 percent of all under 5 deaths globally, address stunting in 160 million children, and prevent the rapid rise of obesity.

Here are five top ways Canada can step up to the plate, and help the world tackle this critical issue:

1. Accelerate commitment and action to combat climate change.

Climate change is complicating global efforts to end malnutrition. Even small and seasonal fluctuations in climate can have huge impacts on food availability and disease patterns, and these in turn dramatically affect children’s survival and development. This means, for example, that babies born in India in November and December are significantly taller on average at three years of age than those born in April through September.

Canada is attending COP21, the U.N.-led climate summit in Paris on Nov. 30. With a promising start under the new government, Canada will need to accelerate efforts and commitments in the global fight to address climate change.

2. Increase investment in nutrition programs.

Canada has been the largest bilateral donor supporting nutrition specific interventions over the past five years. Through these investments, we have seen progress made in several low and middle income settings.

Bangladesh has had a demonstrable and rapid reduction in stunting and rates of early initiation of exclusive breast-feeding have increased in several countries in Asia and Africa. But Canada’s spending has plateaued in the past few years. To accelerate the pace of these lifesaving outcomes, Canada must pledge to increase its investment in nutrition and build on the progress that has already been made in supporting maternal and child health through its Muskoka initiatives. The Nutrition for Growth Summit in Rio in 2016 is a prime opportunity for Canada to make such a pledge.

3. Make development assistance more nutrition sensitive.

Canada needs to increase the nutrition sensitivity of its overseas aid. Much of Canada’s support of nutrition is via programs designed to reduce malnutrition, but malnutrition is also reduced through investments in agriculture, education, poverty reduction, and water, sanitation and hygiene. At present the Canadian government does not classify many of these investments as nutrition sensitive. Canada needs to work harder to make these existing investments in development more nutrition sensitive so they can work harder for nutrition improvement.

4. Submit more Canadian data to the global databases.

Many countries are not on target to meet the global World Health Assembly targets on nutrition. These targets relate to issues such as anemia in women, healthy growth for children under 5 and the rates of exclusive breast-feeding for babies in the first six months of life. Most countries are off course in meeting the targets for exclusive breast-feeding rates and some countries rates are actually decreasing. Adult diabetes related to overweight and obesity is increasing in 185 countries and is decreasing or stable in just five. Such data on nutrition trends and indicators are critical to planning and action.

Compared to the United States and Germany, for example, Canada has submitted little data on the nutrition status of its own population to the global nutrition databases. If Canada does not submit this data, it carries less authority to compel other countries to do so. Without this information, policymakers cannot make informed decisions on how to tackle malnutrition in their countries.

5. Keep investing in nutrition research, especially on how to improve program implementation.

More investment in research to understand the link of nutrition to health and development is needed. This includes research to understand basic mechanisms influencing health and nutrition, but also identifying the strategies needed to reach all population groups. In the SDG era, nutrition targets are to get to zero levels of malnutrition, so understanding the bottlenecks to implementation for the most marginalized will be vital. Canadian research centres of excellence need to increase their investments in understanding and addressing malnutrition in all its forms.

For example, some of the work at the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health spans the range of knowledge synthesis for nutrition solutions as well as implementation strategies for addressing micronutrient status and nutrition deficiencies in women, children and young girls in some of the poorest parts of the world.    

When 1 in 3 of us is held back, we as families, communities, and nations cannot move forward. This not only jeopardizes the lives of those who are malnourished, but also affects the larger framework for economic growth and sustainable development. Simply put: people cannot reach anywhere near their full potential without first overcoming malnutrition. Only a few months remain to get more nutrition targets included in the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals. Canada can play a role in showing the world that malnutrition is inextricably linked with a broader range of global challenges and can no longer be ignored.

Future Fortified is a special online series presented by Devex, in partnership with GAIN, exploring the impact and importance of food fortification to meet global development objectives. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #FutureFortified.

About the authors

  • Lawrence Haddad

    Dr. Lawrence Haddad became the executive director of GAIN in October 2016. Prior to this Lawrence was the founding co-chair and lead author of the Global Nutrition Report, director of the Institute of Development Studies, and director of the Food Consumption and Nutrition Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute. From 2009-2010 Lawrence was also the U.K.’s representative on the Steering Committee of the High Level Panel of Experts of the U.N.’s Committee on World Food Security, and president of the U.K. and Ireland’s Development Studies Association from 2010 to 2012. An economist, Lawrence completed his Ph.D. in food research at Stanford University in 1988.
  • Zulfiqar Bhutta

    Dr. Zulfiqar A. Bhutta is the Robert Harding Inaugural Chair in Global Child Health at The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, and the founding director of the Center of Excellence in Women and Child Health, at the Aga Khan University, a unique joint appointment. He was a founding board member of the Global Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health and co-chairs the Maternal and Child Committee of WHO eastern Mediterranean region. He is the president-elect of the International Paediatric Association assuming leadership in 2016 and a leading voice for integrated maternal, newborn and child health globally.