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It’s time to act on the global burden of malnutrition

52 million children are acutely malnourished, 40 million are obese. Jessica Fanzo, PhD, says we have a moral obligation to act, and the Global Nutrition report shows us five ways how

Jessica Fanzo
Jessica Fanzo PhD

Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Global Food and Agriculture Policy and Ethics

Jess is also Director of the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program, Co-Chair of the Global Nutrition Report @GNReport, Berman Institute of Bioethics, School of Advanced International Studies and Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University.

Child picking flowers in grass field

The numbers are staggering. Over 800 million people go to bed hungry. Around the world, 155 million (23%) of children under five years of age are stunted. Another 52 million are acutely malnourished or wasted.

With the four recent, devastating famines in northern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, the number of children who are severely wasted and food-insecure will spike.

At the same time, 40 million (6%) of children in this age group are overweight or obese globally, a figure that is rising at an alarming rate.

For adults, overweight and obesity is a greater concern: many more adults are overweight than underweight, and the prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled since 1980.

Overweight and obesity afflicts 2.1 billion people, putting them at increased risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Micronutrient deficiencies are estimated to affect more than two billion individuals worldwide.

The burdens of malnutrition can coexist within countries, communities, households and even individuals. This presents a considerable challenge for governments and makes it incredibly difficult to forge a path toward sustainable development. With the added effects of climate change, population pressure, urbanisation, and geopolitics, the task is all that much greater.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda is an opportunity for the world to tackle these burdens. The SDGs provide a road map that shows how we can transform our world into one that is healthy for both people and the planet – now and for future generations.

It is a bold idea rooted in the belief that we share a common humanity. This means that everyone has a right to affordably access safe, sufficient, and nutritious food, and the conditions necessary to benefit from that food, in order to ensure adequate health throughout life. Each of us has a moral responsibility to do our part to ensure this right for everyone and safeguard against anyone being left behind.

How do we do this? The Global Nutrition Report, which will be released this November, outlines five requisites to address the multiple burdens of malnutrition over the next decade. They are:

  1. We must achieve the SDGs by using nutrition as a focal point. It will be a challenge to achieve any SDG without addressing this, let alone the nutrition-related SDG targets of 2.2 and 3.4. All of the SDGs play some role in influencing nutrition outcomes. Without addressing nutrition, it will be extremely difficult to achieve any goal, whether it is poverty reduction, women’s empowerment and equity, or climate change adaptation.
  2. We must work on the burdens at the same time and recognise that every country faces challenges with one or more. No country is immune to poor nutrition outcomes; everyone is responsible for taking on the challenge in a smart way. There is an opportunity to tackle more than one form of malnutrition at once through ‘double or triple duty’ actions. As an example, addressing undernutrition in early years could have additional long-lasting benefits, by lowering the risk of non-communicable disease in adulthood.
  3. We must be better at collecting detailed, disaggregated nutrition data across the underlying causes of malnutrition, to ensure that marginalised, vulnerable populations are not left behind (PDF | 130KB)  with the SDG agenda. It is part of our global social contract.
  4. We must make sure that commitments to address the multiple burdens are achievable, sincere pledges. These commitments should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. They should also be budgeted, implemented, and monitored by governments. Rhetorical commitments should be left at the door.
  5. We must spend much more on nutrition. Currently, we are underinvesting in undernutrition, and overweight and non-communicable diseases. Diet-related non-communicable diseases now account for more than half of the global burden of disease; at the same time, too many women and children are still undernourished, which is an underlying risk factor for many diseases. It is time to prioritise and match investments to actual burdens.
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