Hungry for change: Tackling malnutrition for people and planet  

By Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio, International Engagement Associate, Food and Land Use Coalition 

Tuesday 30, November 2021 

In the waning days of 2021, a “super year” of international moments related to food systems, global leaders will meet for one final virtual summit on 7 to 8 December –  Nutrition for Growth, hosted by the Government of Japan – to mobilise commitments to tackle global malnutrition.  

Nutrition for Growth comes at a critical time in the fight to curb global hunger, with 811 million people now hungry due to the pandemic, meaning that one in ten people were undernourished in the past year.  This trajectory is not improving with food prices surging in many parts of the world, driven in part by the pandemic, the bumpy economic recovery, but also climate calamities such as droughts, which have affected every inhabited continent in 2021. This summit also comes at the heels of the Glasgow Climate COP (COP26), where world leaders recognised that diets and land use can either contribute to keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees, or continue to drive the climate emergency. 

Nearly half of the greenhouse gases flowing into and out of the atmosphere relate to agriculture and land use. To ensure that everyone on earth has access to affordable and nutritious food and that we maintain a habitable climate for humanity, nearly every country will need to make dietary shifts.  

Some high-income countries will need to reduce consumption of meat, for example, beef, which requires  20 times the amount of land, five times the water, and emits 20 times the greenhouse gases, compared to legumes. In other parts of the world, especially parts of sub-Saharan Africa, many people –  particularly children and young women – need to eat more animal-based proteins, including fish and meat to fill protein and micronutrient gaps in their diets. Research from the Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use, and Energy (FABLE) Consortium shows that shifting to healthier diets alone could cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent and reduce forest loss by 20 percent over the period 2030-2050.  

Leaders at the Nutrition for Growth Summit need to take a holistic view of food systems, deliberately connecting nutrition goals with climate and other sustainability aims, to achieve both human and planetary health.  

First and foremost, they must commit to ending hunger. Earlier this year, at the Food System Summit, a coalition of countries, multilateral organisations, civil society and private sector leaders formed the Zero Hunger Coalition. Their aim is to implement a roadmap of ten high impact investments on and off the farm to reduce hunger to less than 200 million people by 2030, while meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement. They are also working to mobilise an added $33 billion per year required to meet these twin goals, with 10 percent of the funds coming from the private sector and an equal amount coming from civil society and international organisations. For the first time ever, ending hunger is within reach – an opportunity we cannot miss.  

Second, countries must demonstrate greater policy coherence – aligning agricultural, public health, trade and environmental policies to spur a transition to healthier diets.  At COP26, 45 countries stepped up and committed to two policy action agendas covering the transition to sustainable food and agriculture through repurposing public policies and providing support and scaling innovation with the goal of providing nutritious and affordable food for a growing population while protecting nature and the climate. Amongst the actions these coalitions could take is redirecting subsidies to healthier foods, such as aquatic foods, which are both lower in greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein to produce than livestock, and high in protein and important micronutrients 

Third, countries must support investment and innovation to improve the affordability and accessibility of safe and nutritious food. Launched at COP26, the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate has already mobilized $4 billion to accelerate investment in climate smart agriculture and food systems innovation. This initiative could help support the research and development needed to sustainably produce more affordable and nutritious foods, especially targeting those facing malnourishment. 

Fourth, governments and companies alike must invest in building more resilient food systems that are able to supply healthy and affordable foods even in spite of climate shocks, value chain disruptions and other shocks and stresses. This requires not only focusing on food production systems, but also the importance of nutrition sensitive social protection programs for vulnerable, displaced or conflict affected communities. We also need measures to boost the resilience of rural and urban low-income households, as highlighted in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s most recent report on the State of Food and Agriculture.  

Finally, countries must support their citizens in making healthier, more informed choices when it comes to diets. Collectively these efforts will lead us towards a positive tipping point, where healthy diets for people and the planet become the norm, and no one goes to bed hungry.  

These transformations require new kinds of cross-sectoral partnerships – something that lies at the heart of the work we do at the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU). In Colombia, FOLU is supporting the development of the Food and Nutritional Security Plan 2021-2033 with the Government of Quindío. Over 70 regional actors came together in a recent workshop to define the scope and priorities for the policy, considering healthy and nutritious foods, sustainable production, market development, logistics and other factors, demonstrating the power of diverse local partnerships to drive change on the ground. 

As we conclude this “super year” we must work together to improve both planetary and human health. One way to do both is by shifting to healthier, more nutritious and more sustainable diets. The specifics of this transition will inevitably vary from one community to the next. But everyone could benefit from taking a holistic approach to end malnutrition once and for all. Nutrition for Growth provides us with the opportunity to do just that. 

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