Opinion: Our food systems are perpetuating malnutrition — and stalling development

Schoolchildren eating lunch in Maharashtra, India. Photo by: CRS

Over the past few weeks, leaders from government, business, private philanthropies, and foundations gathered in Europe and Africa to address the fact that nearly every country in the world is facing a nutrition-related challenge. From the Global Nutrition Summit in Milan to the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement Global Gathering in Abidjan, the message was clear: urgent action and investment is needed to address the crisis of malnutrition in all its forms.

We heard a similar call to action in London four years ago at the inaugural Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2013. At the time, the global development community was starting to recognize the notion that poor nutrition undermines progress across multiple issues and sectors. An unprecedented culmination of events, including leadership by heads of state, ministers of finance and donors, combined with mounting evidence, helped mobilize a global movement dedicated to elevating nutrition on the global agenda.

It was then that the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition — which we co-chair — was founded, launched on the premise that food systems and agriculture are at the heart of not just feeding people, but nourishing them too.

Since then, recognition of the importance of high-quality diets and nutrition has grown. It is now widely understood that to fully address the multiple burdens of malnutrition, including stunting, we must not only look at nutrition-specific interventions, but nutrition-sensitive ones as well. This is especially true for the multiple forms of malnutrition — overweight/obesity, micronutrient deficiency, and undernutrition. Increasingly, countries are experiencing two or three forms of malnutrition at the same time. The new Global Nutrition Report, launched in Milan, found that 88 percent of countries are facing a double or triple burden of malnutrition. These findings indicate that the problem isn’t just about access to food, but rather, access to nutritious food.

At the root of this crisis are today’s food systems. As the Global Panel’s Foresight Report found food systems are failing to provide high-quality diets for all. In fact, the intake of foods that undermine diet quality has increased faster than the intake of high-quality foods.

Malnutrition now affects one in three people worldwide.

Thanks to leadership at the global and regional levels, a fundamental shift has started to take hold to ensure that all parts of food systems work together to deliver high-quality diets. This means thinking beyond agriculture to the many processes and activities involved in food production — from transportation and trade, to storage and retailing, and the many factors that shape access to healthy diets and consumer choice.

But our window for action is closing. Climate change, population growth, and rapid urbanization will continue to place stress upon our food systems. In the meantime, poor diets and nutrition are locking individuals and nations into a cycle of lost potential. In fact, malnutrition costs the global economy an estimated $3.5 trillion per year, or $500 per individual. Without immediate action, multiple forms of malnutrition will pose increasingly serious challenges over the next 20 years.

Policymakers, businesses, civil society, and others have an opportunity to improve consumers’ ability to access food that is safe, nutritious, and affordable. This will require concerted action across many different sectors to connect and break down traditional silos, along with coordinated action across several policy domains. Doing so would not only accelerate progress toward meeting the Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger (Goal 2), but would help achieve all the SDGs. Addressing poor quality diets and malnutrition would boost the development potential of individuals and nations alike.  

We applaud the commitments made at the Global Nutrition Summit in Milan and the progress reported by SUN countries at the Global Gathering last week. We also call on leaders at the highest levels in government, business, and civil society to follow up on pledges with action on delivering healthy diets in order to advance health, inequality, and poverty.  

We’ve heard the call to prioritize nutrition — now let us heed that call by ensuring food systems deliver safe and healthy diets for all.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

You have 2 free articles left
Log in or sign-up to unlock all of the free news on Devex.

About the authors

  • Headshot johnbeddington

    John Beddington

    Sir John Beddington is the senior adviser at the Oxford Martin School, professor of natural resource management at Oxford University, and co-chair of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. From 2006 to 2013, he served as the U.K. government chief scientific adviser and was responsible for increasing the scientific capacity across British civil service and providing advice to the Government in the face of various health crises.
  • Headshot johnkufuor

    John Kufuor

    HE John Agyekum Kufuor was the second president of the Fourth Republic of Ghana (2001–2009) and chairperson of the African Union (2007–2008). He is co-chair of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. He is a nutrition champion and, as such, won the 2011 World Food Prize for his advocacy together with President Lula of Brazil.