Nutrition gets a moment at the World Food Prize as global hunger rises

David Nabarro, one of the World Food Prize laureates, speaks during a lunch lecture at Wageningen University, Netherlands. Photo by: AfDB

DES MOINES, Iowa — Nutrition took center stage at the 2018 World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue at a critical time, with the number of hungry people worldwide on the rise for the first time in 10 years.

The World Food Prize, known as the “Nobel prize for food and agriculture,” was awarded last week to Lawrence Haddad and Dr. David Nabarro, both from the United Kingdom, for their work in elevating the importance of nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life. The pair was recognized with $250,000, combined, for “individual and complimentary” work to make nutrition a central point of development strategy following a global spike in food prices in 2007-2008 that made many staple foods unaffordable.

But Haddad and Nabarro say their work is not done as nutrition trends worsened in 2017. Continued diligence from the agriculture and global health sectors is needed if the world is not only to reverse the uptick in hunger worldwide but to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2, Zero Hunger, they said.

“It is really worrying that these numbers are going up,” said Haddad, an economist whose research has helped policymakers make a fiscal case for food aid.

“What we’ve tried to do is to help governments all over the world be comfortable with the idea that investing in the good nutrition of their citizens is one of the most powerful ways to create societies that are intellectually gifted, physically strong, and that are also capable of dealing with some of the complexities that we face in today’s world,” said Nabarro, a public health advocate at the United Nations who was the first coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition movement that began in 2010.

“But if the nutrition is inadequate — you’re not getting enough — or if the nutrition is excessive — you’re getting too much — that’s not so good, and that creates a major handicap on people’s ability to perform as they should.”

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” report released last month found that hunger is on the rise worldwide, with 821 million or 1 in every 9 people not eating enough in 2017. The report, produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization and other U.N. agencies, found that little progress is being made on signs of malnutrition such as obesity and stunting. There are 150.8 million children under 5 who are stunted, or shorter than average height for their age, and 50.5 million who are wasted, or have lower weight than average for their height. Over 38 million children under 5 are obese.

“It’s important for us to mark the fact that we’ve been doing the World Food Prize forums since 1986 and in all that time we’ve been meeting in the context of progress, and this year we’re not,” said 2010 World Food Prize Laureate Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World.

Many at the three-day annual World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, acknowledged that agriculture and nutrition had for too long been separated in the global agenda, with agricultural development largely focused on increasing yield of staple crops such as corn, rice, and wheat rather than increasing growth of vegetables and fruits that provide more nutritious diets.

Shawn Baker, director of the nutrition team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, called on attendees from the agricultural sector, which included private companies, scientists, and farmers themselves, to recognize the role their work plays in ensuring the world is not only fed but fed with proper nutrients that prevent stunting.  

“Nutrition needs you. We are not going to resolve the challenges of undernutrition without the ag sector stepping up in a big way,” Baker said.

The agricultural sector must indeed be engaged, said Elwyn Grainger-Jones, executive director at the CGIAR System Organization, the largest global agricultural research partnership.  

“The symbolism of the World Food Prize recognizing that it’s not just about productivity growth, it’s about nutrition, the demand for food, the types of food, the variety of foods that are available, is tremendously significant,” Grainger-Jones said. “It means we’re talking about the food system and we’re not just talking about agricultural production, and that’s what it’s going to take to shift the trajectory in a transformative way so that we have a more healthy and productive and environmentally sustainable approach to landscapes and food systems.”

The FAO report found that climate change is undermining the production of staple crops and that as temperatures continue to rise, the situation will only worsen if crops do not build climate resilience. Climate change is causing droughts and floods as well as variability in agricultural season and is a main driver of the increase in global hunger, along with conflict.

Haddad, who is the executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, said the link between SDG 2 and many of the other benchmarks the global community strives to meet by 2030 makes reversing global hunger trends even more important.

“Nutrition has something to say for every goal in the Sustainable Development Goals and especially for peace and for climate mitigation and adaptation,” Haddad said. “A focus on nutrition can play a big role. It can reduce the price variability that climate change drives, if we focus more on having a variety of crops in a variety of places — so diversifying food systems, that’s good for farmers, that’s good for communities, it’s good for the resilience of the food system.”

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.