A broken food production system that favors industrial agriculture is endangering the health of humanity and the planet, according to a new report.
The Global Nutrition Report 2020, released on Tuesday, revealed that the various forms of malnutrition — underweight, undernourished, overweight, and obese — have become the leading causes of death and illness worldwide. At the same time, access to health care, preventative treatment, and nutritious food options are out of reach for the world’s most vulnerable communities.
As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic upends economies worldwide — deepening inequality, exacerbating food insecurity, and plunging people into poverty — the malnutrition crisis could get even worse.
“COVID-19 exposes the vulnerability and weaknesses of our already fragile food systems,” the report’s authors wrote in a foreword. “COVID-19 has tested our food systems, already stressed by increasing climate extremes. Containing the virus has caused food and nutrition shortages and driven governments to reduce social services, such as school nutrition programs, that the most marginalized rely upon. In the context of food and nutrition shortages, accessibility and affordability of healthy, sustainably produced food becomes even more challenging.”
Globally, nearly 1 in 9 people, or 820 million people, are hungry or undernourished, and 132 million people live with acute hunger that approaches starvation. The World Food Program warns that the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic could double the number of the people living with acute hunger by the end of the year.
“As the new COVID-19 reality emerges, it is important to avoid the wholesale displacement of the gains that have been made, while managing a new and ever-present threat,” the report’s authors wrote.
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Unless governments take steps to make food systems more resilient and provide immediate food aid to families experiencing hardship, global hunger numbers are likely to rise, according to the report.
Malnutrition of this kind is most common in low-income countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and leads to widespread health and economic consequences, especially for children, the report notes.
In fact, people living in low-income countries are 10 times more likely to be underweight than people in high-income countries.
Even as hunger rises around the world, more people are becoming overweight or obese, with nearly a third of the global population falling in this category, according to the report.
Nutrition inequality begins from the moment a child is born and reflects deep structural barriers.
The report notes that women with less education living in rural areas in low-income countries are less likely — due to poverty and other constraints — to feed their children diverse diets from a young age. This, in turn, can lead to health consequences such as stunting and wasting.
Disparities in nutrition access largely stem from a global food system that centers on industrial agriculture, according to the report. Rather than growing and distributing food that improves the health of people and maintains the integrity of local environments, industrial agriculture prioritizes high-yield, high-profit crops that degrade landscapes and often get turned into highly processed foods.
Making matters worse, global health systems often fail to incorporate nutrition standards and provide nutrition interventions to malnourished people.
The report calls on countries to promote agriculture that involves diverse crops to ensure nutritional variety and environmental integrity; develop nutrition programs to reach vulnerable communities; subsidize access to fresh and healthy foods; and enact food-based policies that reflect the latest in nutrition and health research.
The world currently produces enough food to feed every living person, but inefficient supply chains lead to enormous waste. By improving oversight and coordination of every part of the supply chain — from harvests to processing to delivery to markets — countries can ensure that food waste is kept to a minimum and people are fed.
The report's authors also encourage countries to enact universal health care systems that can provide preventative treatment to people with different forms of malnutrition, create nutrition-based programs, hire nutritionists, and send educational teams into vulnerable communities.
The malnutrition crisis facing the world is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of inequality and misguided economic values, the report argues. It’s possible to ensure everyone in the world receives a quality, nutritious diet at every stage of their life. Countries just have to make it a priority.
“Everyone deserves access to healthy, affordable food and quality nutrition care,” the report’s executive summary says. “This access is hindered by deeper inequities that arise from unjust systems and processes that structure everyday living conditions.”
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