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OPINION: Linking the dots to end hunger and malnutrition

Monday, 5 August 2019 12:34 GMT

A woman walks past a shop window with cans of soda in Paris, France, April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Countries keep subsidizing products of low nutritious content, favoring staple foods over fresh produce

José Graziano da Silva is the former Director-General of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Maximo Torero Cullen is Assistant Director-General, Economic and Social Development at the FAO. 

While hunger remains a scourge, a more complex nutrition problem is looming ever larger.

An estimated 820 million people or 11% of those alive today, suffer from chronic undernourishment. But the number of obese people in the world has been larger since 2016, according to the FAO report launched last month.

Micronutrient deficiencies and overweight affects even vaster swathes of the population, underscoring how we have a lot of work to do to create healthier food systems for all. And all means all – some 8 percent of the people living in Europe and North America do not have regular access to safe nutritious and sufficient food, according to the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), which also showed more than half the people in Africa- the world’s fastest growing population – suffer moderate food insecurity or worse.

That is morally unacceptable, and carries exorbitant economic costs.

What is happening and what is to be done? Why are markets not supplying what is needed, and how can we help direct all the little fingers hiding behind the invisible hand to contribute to a better outcome?

Here are a few thoughts to try to bring pieces of the puzzle together.

Are we producing enough food globally?

The short answer is yes. And a recent modelling exercise by FAO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects that agricultural productivity is expected to increase slightly faster than the 15 percent increase in global demand over the coming decade, all with decelerating greenhouse gas emissions and without substantial expansion in land use. A longer answer would take note of the need to improve sustainability, particularly with GHG-intensive meat products, where productivity is lagging.

Are we producing food where it is most needed?

Here the answer is no. Most of the expected output and productivity gains from here through 2028 will be generated by emerging and developing countries in Latin America, reflecting greater investment and technological catch-up, as well as resource availability. Demand growth, meanwhile, will be strongest in Africa and South Asia. This clearly highlights how important international trade is for food security in a growing number food importing countries, and why disruptions, uncertainties and trade tensions are unwelcome. It also underscores how important food safety standards are and assuring nutritious quality of food being traded.

Do demand trends match global needs in terms of hunger and the prevalence of moderate food insecurity as flagged by FIES?

Alas, no. Per capita consumption of staple foods is expected to be stable over the next decade, as most of the world’s population doesn’t need more. On the other hand, meat demand is expected to be relatively strong in the Americas, while low incomes continue to constrain meat consumption. For example, meat consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa is quite low, but will remain constrained due to low incomes. In other words, despite robust global food supplies, the neediest regions will struggle to afford improved nutrition. Meanwhile, per capita consumption of sugar and vegetable oils is expected to rise, driven by urbanization and the shift to more processed and convenience foods. The combination of excessive calorie consumption, unbalanced diets and increasingly sedentary lifestyles implies a growing burden of overweight and obesity in more and more parts of the world.

Are production incentives aligned with the vision of a world free of hunger and all forms of malnutrition? 

Absolutely not. Lamentably, countries keep subsidizing products of low nutritious content, favoring staple foods over fresh and variegated produce - and fail to provide adequate and well-designed incentives for farmers to produce more nutritious products. This has a negative effect on nutrition and dietary diversity, often where these are most needed.

Is all of the above baked into the cake in terms of local and regional relative prices?

It seems so. An innovative new study by Derek Headey and Harold Alderman from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) compared relative caloric prices (RCPs) for different food categories across 176 countries. They found that nutrient-dense foods like eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables can be very expensive in poorer countries, which makes it harder to diversify away from nutrient-sparse staples. In richer countries, unhealthy foods offer convenient and low-cost options. These findings, if mapped to FAO’s own data on the geography of food supply and demand and of the prevalence of all forms of malnutrition, cast light on where our greatest challenges lie.

Our current food systems are not delivering what is needed, and hint at the drastic changes we need to make. Better incentives for the world’s agricultural producers; better information to prod consumers into choosing healthier diets; sustainable trade with clear rules; and a big push to think of nutrition as part of food safety. This is the spadework needed to increase the resilience of the world’s poorest households, and the health of everyone.