DES MOINES, IOWA (Oct. 22) -- The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are creating new challenges in the global fight against malnutrition, but there are opportunities to solve these challenges if policymakers work together, according to a panel of international experts participating in Farm Journal Foundation’s Speaker Series.
The Speaker Series event covering the nexus of agriculture and nutrition took place on Oct. 21 as a side event to the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa. Keynote speaker Shawn Baker, chief nutritionist at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the global malnutrition crisis, with an additional 13.6 million children expected to suffer from wasting, the most deadly form of malnutrition, from 2020-2022.
“The COVID pandemic is the gravest crisis to hit in the four decades I have been working in nutrition, because it’s disrupting every system that families rely on,” Baker said. “It’s hitting livelihoods, so the ability to purchase nutritious food and access care is diminished. It’s disrupting health and humanitarian systems and their ability to provide health and nutrition services. Social protection programs have also been stretched, so they cannot expand enough to meet the additional burden.”
Today, malnutrition is the underlying cause of 45% of all child deaths, and many children who survive malnutrition still face lifelong challenges from stunting, which affects both physical and cognitive development, Baker said. Similar to COVID-19, the climate crisis is undermining global support systems and increasing inequities around the world, putting already vulnerable populations even more at risk.
However there is hope, Baker said, because we know how to solve nutrition challenges, and policymakers have recently made pledges to increase spending on nutrition, such as the U.S. government’s $5 billion commitment to invest in global food systems. In particular, improving the nutrition of pregnant and nursing mothers and children within their first 1,000 days (between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday), significantly reduces stunting and puts young people on a path to a healthier future.
Upcoming events, such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow and the Nutrition for Growth Summit led by Japan will provide additional opportunities for action.
On the African continent, there are a number of challenges that have led to increased hunger and high prevalence of malnutrition, including lack of crop diversity and unsustainable farming practices, said Dr. Namukolo Covic, a registered nutritionist and senior research coordinator at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) for the CGIAR Collaborative Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“We know that we have widespread hunger on the continent, and over time, a lot of our agricultural policies have focused almost entirely on staple foods, such as grains and tubers,” she said. “We haven’t really diversified our agriculture sector as effectively as we should have in order to have more diverse food baskets.”
However many countries and international leaders are now rising to this challenge by setting dietary indicators and areas where agriculture should be monitored, Covic said. For example, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) is using dietary diversity for women and children 6-23 months in the CAADP Biennial Review process. This means agriculture would be assessed on how it delivers better diets to the plate. The challenge is that the dietary diversity data is not collected frequently enough, and this should be rectified, she said.
In addition, the African Union is working to declare 2022 “The Year of Nutrition.” This is complementary to the food systems transformation pathways countries have developed as part of the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). In addition to country pathways, the African Union has developed an Africa common position on the UNFSS that can foster cross-border coherence in addressing common food systems challenges and malnutrition.
Improved agricultural practices will be critical to increasing crop diversity and nutrition in Africa, said Dr. Kofi Boa, the founder of the Center for No-Till Agriculture in Ghana. Producing nutritious food starts with healthy soil, so it’s necessary to farm sustainably to grow nutrient-dense crops and also to ensure that the land remains healthy and viable long into the future, he said.
“The biggest problem we have had has been that government and donor agencies have treated agriculture and nutrition in isolation,” which has led to the development of different policies in silos, Boa said. “There is so much we can do. We all need to use good agricultural practices such as Conservation Agriculture. Conservation agriculture leads to healthy soils, and healthy soils support the growth of healthy plants, which produce healthy, nutritious foods that impact human health.”
Farm Journal Foundation’s annual Speaker Series works in partnership with six student organizations and 15 universities, a number of which include the program as part of their curriculum. This week’s event was the third installment of 2021 covering the nexus of agriculture and nutrition. The final Speaker Series event of the year will take place on Nov. 12 and will cover diversity in the agriculture and nutrition sector.
About Farm Journal Foundation
Farm Journal Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to achieving global food security by sustaining modern agriculture’s leadership role and ability to meet the vital needs of a growing population. The organization works to advance this mission through key issue areas, including global food security, agricultural research and development, nutrition, and conservation agriculture. To learn more visit www.farmjournalfoundation.org. For media inquiries, contact Whitney McFerron at firstname.lastname@example.org.