Many African countries have made progress against malnutrition but the effects of lockdowns could erase the gains made so far. Neil Ford reports.
Malnutrition inevitably goes hand-in-hand with food insecurity. It is a contributory factor in 45% of all child deaths under the age of five and is often caused not only by too little food but also by poor quality food or overreliance on too few types of food.
Past food security initiatives have even contributed to the problem by focusing too much on the production and distribution of staple foods, such as cassava, maize and rice, and too little on fruit, vegetables and pulses. As a result, vitamin A, iron and iodine deficiencies have all become more common.
The proportion of African people affected by malnutrition at any one time fell from 27% to 20% between 1990 and 2016, although the absolute number actually increased over the same period from 182m to 233m because of population growth.
As a result, the rate of stunting fell by 8% between 2000 and 2020. Ghana and Kenya have made particularly impressive progress, while Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania are expected to register the same level of advances in the near future.
However, there seems little chance of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 – Zero Hunger by 2030, including ending all forms of malnutrition – in even a single African country by 2030. Moreover, progress seemed to have stalled even prior to the pandemic.
The FAO estimates that the number of undernourished people in the world increased from 624m in 2014 to 688m in 2019, roughly in line with population increase.
Impact of Covid
In a report published in December, NGO Save the Children warned that the Covid-19 pandemic could result in 9.3m more children suffering from wasting worldwide, many of them in Africa, with 112,000 more deaths over the next two years than would otherwise have been the case. Other organisations are even more pessimistic. Many poorer households, particularly in conflict zones, have too little food and too narrow a diet on which to subsist. Many programmes focus on pregnant women and the youngest children by seeking to lower the incidence of anaemia in women of reproductive age, with the aim of reducing low birth weight.
Children in some parts of the continent were used to receiving meals at school but lockdown school closures cut off this vital source of nutrition. The World Bank warned that “reduced calorie intake and compromised nutrition threaten gains in poverty reduction and health, and could have lasting impacts on the cognitive development of young children.”
Gabriella Waaijman, Humanitarian Director at Save the Children, said: “To truly put an end to malnutrition and hunger, we must tackle the root causes of acute nutritious food shortages. That means putting an end to global conflict, tackling changing climate, building more resilient communities and ensuring aid workers have unhindered access to the most vulnerable communities.”
Malnutrition can be tackled by many of the same measures as food insecurity more generally but promoting intra-African trade in food is perhaps of even more importance here. Enabling a greater range of producers to trade an increased number of foodstuffs over wider areas helps people to access a more varied diet, thereby providing a greater range of nutrients.
The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), which was set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, works by bringing together governments, businesses and civil society to develop sustainable solutions that make nutritious foods more readily available, affordable and desirable.
Dr Lawrence Haddad, executive director of GAIN and 23 other World Food Prize Laureates, say the pandemic also provides an opportunity to think and act differently. They have written an open letter calling on the US government to take the lead on transforming the way we produce food and putting an end to world hunger.
Ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit in September, the group has set out steps for the US to help with achieving this goal. On the list is a recommendation to look at the benefits of improving our food systems for the health of both people and the planet.
“The appetite of partners around the world to work with the United States in both the public and private sectors is strong. We urge the Biden-Harris administration to seize this moment and invest in development and cooperation to achieve zero hunger by 2030.”
Talking of malnutrition, Haddad said: “Even though some people may not be hungry, in the sense that their bellies are full, if they’re not getting the right nutrients, then their immune system is really weak…There’s evidence now that high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere actually depress the nutrient content of key crops.”
Haddad also commented: “We support governments in Africa to identify where their food system is weakest for nutrition, where their food environment could do more to incentivise businesses to do better on nutritious foods, and we support businesses to be more nutrition-advancing.”
Ending hunger, he said, “is a choice, we have to make that choice. And that choice will also be good for climate change and a whole range of other outcomes too.”