Malnutrition is a global challenge. According to estimates, as we enter 2017 800 million people in the world are hungry, and 2 billion have micronutrient deficiencies. This means that 1 in 3 people are malnourished, and almost a quarter of children under five have stunted growth, with diminished physical and cognitive capacities. At the same time, almost 2 billion adults worldwide – more than 1 in 4 – are overweight or obese.
This has led to a call for more research on the quality of diets worldwide.
“Poor diets are responsible for more of the global burden of ill health than sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco combined,” write the authors of the call for action in the journal Nature. “In the next few decades, food systems will be under further stresses from population and income growth, urbanisation, globalisation, climate change and increasingly scarce natural resources.
“In particular, urgent interdisciplinary research is needed to support concerted policy action. Piecemeal action will not do: the trends are so large and interconnected that the entire food system needs overhauling.”
The panel has set out ten priorities for the research:
- Identify points in the food production process where research is most needed.
- Make more data on diets widely available and establish open access data portals.
- Characterise what makes a healthy diet in all countries.
- Analyse how to tackle the coexistence of different forms of malnutrition.
- Understand effective combinations of local and long-distance supply chains.
- Analyse incentives for businesses to improve diets.
- Shape healthy diets while considering environmental impact.
- Study the impact of supply and demand of different foods.
- Identify the appropriate economic levers of change.
- Fix measurement of each food’s impact on health, climate and other issues.
“We have the knowledge and delivery platforms for that can be rolled out. It’s just not being done yet,” says professor Corinna Hawkes from the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London. She emphasises that good nutrition in a child’s early years, including breastfeeding or better infant feeding programmes, can help to avoid both the risks of undernutrition and obesity.
Economic impact of malnutrition
Meanwhile, the economic benefits of nutrition investment have been discussed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), as reported in Nutraingredients. They estimate the cost to the global economy to be around €3.3 trillion each year. Two thirds of this is down to micro and macro deficiencies, and the rest is due to obesity (one of the paradoxical outcomes of malnutrition in people hooked on an unhealthy ‘western’ diet).
“It’s a convincing argument and shows that this thing [malnutrition] costs a lot more than it does to fight,” says Dr Kostas Stamoulis, head of the FAO’s economic and social development department. “A lot of people only think of the social cost, that it’s socially and morally unacceptable for people to be obese or malnourished. But in my view the economic impact is very important too.”
According to the FAO’s 2013 State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) calculations, investing €1.12bn ($1.2bn) annually in micronutrient supplements, food fortification and biofortification of staple crops for five years would generate annual benefits of €14.37bn ($15.3bn) to the global economy.