The country in which you are sitting as you read this article has a lot of malnourished people. We know this because every country in the world is experiencing some form of malnutrition at very serious levels. It is not good news.
In the high-income countries it is the problems of obesity, diabetes, strokes, high blood pressure and cancer that catch the headlines and fill up the hospitals and mortuaries. In low-income countries, it is infant wasting and stunting that fills up the small coffins and burial mounds. In the middle-income countries, it is both. These manifestations directly affect one in three people on this planet, putting each of us one degree of separation – at most – away from malnutrition.
The burden of malnutrition carried by the planet is staggering. Together, high body weight, poor diets and child and maternal malnutrition account for half of all the world’s combined mortality and morbidity. Poor diets account for one in five deaths worldwide. And as obesity rates escalate and hunger numbers creep up, the bad news data are only going to get worse if we don’t do something different – and fast.
What needs to happen? We need to give new meaning to the food we eat. It is not about fuelling the body but about nourishing it. We also need to repurpose our food systems: from commerce that is indifferent to the health of people and the planet, to commerce that seeks to enhance financial returns through caring for those very same goals.
How can this be done? Every corner of a society has an opportunity to transform its food systems. Civil society in communities, schools, workplaces, societies, unions, parliaments and the media need to demand from their leaders in government and business much better access to affordable nutritious foods.
Activist governments need to incentivise their businesses towards low-cost production, storage, distribution, processing and marketing of nutritious foods and, at the same time, disincentivise the low-cost production of foods that are dense in calories and salt but little else.
Everyone has a role. Governments have many policy and legislative tools available to them including subsidies, taxes, bans and codes – courage is what they need to implement them. Businesses need to see the backlash that is coming against them if they try to ramp up the dumping of unhealthy food on unsuspecting populations. Instead, they should be at the vanguard of the new health pioneers instead of being tarnished as the anti-health villains.
Malnutrition is not inevitable; it is a choice. Countries must work together to find their own way forward
Their employees, investors and customers increasingly want them to be purpose driven, including those in the middle and low-income countries. Researchers need to grapple with the really hard job of developing metrics that make it easier for everyone to see the environmental consequences of the food choices we make in terms of what we grow and eat.
We can make it happen, but it won’t be easy. Food systems, which shape the journeys of foods from farms, forests and oceans, will not respond to silver bullets. They need to be viewed and shaped from multiple perspectives. They require people and organisations from all walks of society to come together in food systems alliances to identify ways to move forward on multiple fronts at several levels: local, national and global.
Dialogue is essential to this, as is leadership. Without dialogue we have fixed positions and this leads to inaction. Without leadership to articulate the potential gains from collaboration and to show how collaboration may be achieved, inertia will rule.
At best inertia breeds complacency and, at worst, hopelessness. These are states we can ill afford. In the absence of any change to current trends we are on track for one in two of the world’s population to be directly affected by malnutrition as opposed to the one in three we have now.
It is urgency we need, not complacency and hopelessness. As this year’s World Food Prize Laureates we have spent our lives fighting against this kind of thinking. The complexity of food systems represents a real opportunity, and does not lead us to despair. Collaboration is a way of building rather than dissipating power. Evidence is a way of galvanising rather than paralysing action. Leadership should generate a race to the top rather than the bottom.
Malnutrition is not inevitable; it is a choice. No country has a monopoly on the problem and none a monopoly on the solution. Countries must work together to find their own way forward. Sustainable Development Goal number two challenges us to end malnutrition in all its forms by 2030.
We believe that goal is not a platitude, rather a commitment that rallies us all and brings us together.
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