Empty stomachs today, sick workshops tomorrow: The need for nutrition NOW

The world’s hunger clock has regressed back to 2015 when the global community had resolved to get good food to all plates by 2030

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 07 July 2022

The world is hungry and those who get to eat are not eating healthy, leading to wider prevalence of malnutrition — undernourishment, particularly.

About a tenth of the world’s population lacks proper nourishment, the latest United Nation State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World flagged.

Malnutrition includes under-nutrition, hidden hunger and being overweight. That means households are enduring hunger and a nutrition crisis together, leading to the making of a generation that is not healthy.

Such a high level of malnourishment means people, children especially, are eating not much according to their need or of nutritious value. Malnutrition is a foundational challenge: A malnourished child would grow up to be an unhealthy adult. A country with a high level of malnourishment, thus, will have an unhealthy population.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war have stalled the global progress on achieving zero-hunger and malnourishment targets under the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. In 2021, nearly 30 per cent of the world population — 2.3 billion — was food insecure. This was an increase of 350 million people over 2019. This lack of access to food or inability to afford has a direct link to level of malnutrition.

The UN report says that prevalence of undernourishment in the world population has gone up from 8 per cent in 2019 to 9.8 per cent in 2021. In 2030, the level of malnourishment will be 8 per cent, same as in 2015 when the SDGs were set.

At the core of this twin challenge is the affordability for quality food, a crucial link between food security and nutrition. Lack of good quality food, defined as “healthy diet” by the World Health Organization, leads to undernourishment.

Why are so many people not able to consume this healthy diet? It is, as the UN report says, the rising food prices. According to the report:

The effects of inflation in consumer food prices stemming from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to contain it, have increased the costs and the unaffordability of a healthy diet around the world.

A diet defined healthy is anyway expensive beyond the reach of the world’s poor: In 2020, such diet cost $3.54 per person per day on an average — nearly thrice the extreme poverty line. This was after an increase of 3.3 per cent from 2019.

In 2021 and now 2022, food prices have increased even more. This means more and more people have not been able to afford a healthy diet.

To this add a constant dip in personal income in the last two years. Some 95 per cent of countries have reported reductions in per capita income dip due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid such economic constraints, people have managed with bare-minimum food, even compromised on the quantity of that. Thus, both hunger and malnutrition must have further precipitated.

The world had agreed to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, with adequate and healthy food, back in 2015. But the clock has rather reversed, putting us back in a crisis-like situation, as it was then.

Hunger can be tackled with the supply of food; but it is difficult to fight malnutrition with this approach. It is a development challenge that will keep haunting us: Economic growth can’t be based on an unhealthy workforce. The burden arising of diseases to be suffered by a malnourished generation will be too high for a country.

The availability and affordability of a healthy diet, or good food, is thus an existential as well as an economic challenge.

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