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Improving nutrition for Africa's food security

Jay Naidoo, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition

From "The G20 Mexico Summit 2012: The Quest for Growth and Stability,"
edited by John Kirton and Madeline Koch, published by Newsdesk Media Group and the G20 Research Group, 2012
To download a low-resolution pdf, click here.

Undernutrition has an enormous impact on the life chances of millions of Africans. It is crucial that international efforts ensure that the world's poorest people have adequate access to essential nutrition

In June the world will turn its attention to the G20 Los Cabos Summit, where leaders from across the globe will gather to discuss some of today's most pressing problems. Food security, with an emphasis on food price volatility, will rightfully be high on the agenda.

But strengthening food security goes well beyond the challenges of increasing food production to meet future demand and addressing short-term price volatility. For poor consumers, the issue is not just about the quantity of food that they eat, but also the quality. The nutritional quality of the food eaten underlies health and well-being, and affects almost all aspects of people's lives and livelihoods.

This is why any consideration of food security in Africa must move beyond whether there is enough food to consider whether that food can deliver life-sustaining nutrients, particularly for the millions of pregnant and lactating women and infants and young children who have greater nutritional requirements than the general population.

The legacy of early deprivation

Global Monitoring Report 2012: Food Prices, Nutrition and the Millennium Development Goals, published by the World Bank, makes this point clear:

"Vicious interactions between malnutrition, poor health, and impaired cognitive development set children on lower development paths and lead to irreversible changes… The most dramatic effect of the food price crisis is an increase in infant mortality, especially in low-income countries. Other hard-to-reverse impacts include growth faltering (stunting or low height for age) and lower learning abilities. Malnourished young children are also at more risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease in adulthood. Moreover, declines in human capital in a crisis tend to be more pronounced than the corresponding increases during economic booms."

The Lancet series in 2008 on maternal and child undernutrition put a number on the impact of nutrition on child health, calculating that undernutrition accounts for a staggering one-third of total child deaths globally – some 2.6 million each year. Even for those children who survive, undernutrition has produced generations of children who suffer from chronic malnutrition. Millions more suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which touch an estimated two billion people, affecting their health, development and educational attainment, as well as their economic outcomes.

Moreover, acute malnutrition, which demands emergency treatment, affects an estimated 55.5 million children globally. These conditions are exacerbated during times of economic crisis and food insecurity, and by poor access to clean water, good sanitation and adequate healthcare.

It was following up on these shocking statistics that the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement was born, designed to help governments, civil society, the private sector, research institutions and the United Nations system work together to fight hunger and undernutrition through expanding proven interventions. Far from being a silver bullet, the SUN movement recognises that addressing undernutrition will necessitate coordination and collaboration among the food, health and hygiene sectors.

And what of Africa? Why does Africa, a continent with such abundant agricultural potential, face such a challenge in food and nutrition security? Certainly, land and water management practices, limited uptake of agricultural technologies, poor infrastructure, a weak enabling environment that has inhibited particularly private sector investments, dysfunctional markets and few means to manage risks associated with excessive price volatility of agricultural commodities play critical roles.

But these challenges also relate to a failure to view food as a conduit to good nutrition and ultimately to positive health and economic outcomes. One need only look at progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to see that Africa's statistics illustrate this.

Progress in the health-related MDGs, particularly maternal, infant and child mortality, is significantly lagging with respect to the 2015 targets. Progress towards reducing undernourishment also has a long way to go, with only 15 per cent of sub-Saharan African countries having achieved or on track to achieve MDG 1 – leaving 85 per cent off track.

Improving access to nutritious foods

The real question is what can be done, and where should the G20 focus its efforts if it cares about both economic development and the health and welfare of the world's poor. Evidence from the recent food price crisis indicates that increases in global prices have not only decreased access to food but have also forced the poor to sacrifice the consumption of nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and animal products.

Improving the production, access and use of nutritious foods is one fundamental strategy to enhance the nutrition of the poor. Improving the quality of staple foods all along the value chain, through improved seeds, better fertilisers and milling and storage practices, as well as through large-scale fortification efforts shows promise in improving the diets in a sustainable way that reaches the very poorest people.

The data is clear that pregnant and lactating women and children under the age of two have extremely high nutritional needs and must consume higher nutritionally dense foods. Improved maternal nutrition during pregnancy and lactation, the promotion of breastfeeding – including during illness – and the use of nutritious solid foods to complement breastfeeding, starting when the baby is six months old as well as therapeutic feeding when necessary, are important.

Taken together, efforts to improve the nutritional quality of food along the entire food value chain coupled with targeted nutrition interventions can both increase effective yields for poor farmers and improve the health and livelihoods of their communities and themselves.

In short, to improve nutrition for Africa's food security, the world must ensure that the food system is accountable for and works to improve nutritional value. This means more than simply increasing production and stabilising prices. Nutritional quality needs to become an active and measurable objective embedded within the food security agenda and within agriculture programmes.

Strategies for integrating health, nutrition and agriculture are reflected in the Scaling Up Nutrition movement, and are gaining momentum both nationally and among the global community. More support is required from G20 governments for substantial progress to be made in the fight against malnutrition. Supporting the policy and resource goals of the SUN movement is an important step. Capitalising more effectively on the reach and know-how of the private sector all along the value chain, and coupling that expertise with a strong policy environment is also important, as is emphasising the importance of nutrition in the agriculture and food security agendas.

So, too, is providing a framework for measuring progress. These additions would go a long way to address one of the world's greatest challenges both in Africa and in poor countries around the globe. Let us see the G20 take decisive actions to make this happen.

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