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Ethiopia has been experiencing historic droughts, which has led to water scarcity and food insecurity for millions.
Mulugenta Ayene/UNICEF
PartnerFood & Hunger

Malnutrition in Africa Is Being Fueled by Climate Change

By H. E. Rhoda Peace Tumusiime, the former Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the African Union Commission


As we prepare for the 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 7), we are reminded of the great strides we have made in tackling hunger in Africa. But we are also reminded of how poor-quality diets and unsustainable agriculture and food systems are leading to a growing malnutrition crisis. It's a crisis closely tied to climate change.

Between 2000 and 2015, the global community demonstrated its ability to form strong partnerships and deliver the Hunger Millennium Development Goal. The proportion of undernourished people in developing countries fell by almost half. We continue to see a reduction in the prevalence of stunting in African children under 5 years of age, from 38% to 30% over the last 20 years. We are also seeing a continued increase in the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding. In several African countries, the levels of exclusive breastfeeding increased from 25% to over 40% between 2000 and 2017.

However, after decades of positive news, we are now seeing increases in the number of people suffering from hunger and food insecurity. The total number of undernourished individuals has grown to over 820 million last year, from 785 million in 2015. We are also seeing a very alarming trend in both children and adults where hunger, undernutrition, overweight, obesity, and associated diet-related non-communicable diseases coexist. In Africa, we are seeing this phenomenon within individual countries. Our food systems are under huge pressure, with agricultural production, food storage, transportation, trade, transformation, and retail being pushed to deliver ever more food stuffs as cheaply as possible, at the expense of consumer health and the environment.

But this challenge also presents new opportunities for Africa.

Africa is the youngest and fastest growing population in the world, with associated economic opportunities. Investment in agriculture and food systems that deliver healthier and more sustainable diets and better nutrition is one way of taking advantage of this opportunity. The food system is already a substantial employer. In Nigeria, two-thirds of the entire labour force are employed in agriculture, which forms one part of the food system.

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Africa is also faced with the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Within our African networks, my colleagues and I have long argued that the challenges presented by the goal of achieving sustainable food systems is as important as climate change. The two are intrinsically linked. That’s because food systems are a major contributor to climate change, being responsible for up to 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions, but also because they stand to gain from the measures that will mitigate and adapt to climate change. If we are to improve food systems across Africa, the political leadership must provide strong and robust policies and build effective partnerships between government, civil society, and the private sector, much like that we are seeing within the African Leaders for Nutrition initiative. Policymakers must take responsibility for shaping and managing healthy and sustainable food systems, just as they do with transportation, finance, land and water systems, and public health.

This is why the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, alongside its partners, are hosting a side event at TICAD 7, entitled "Ending Malnutrition in Africa: Towards Nutrition for Growth 2020 and Beyond," where we will explore nutrition’s role in achieving universal health care and sustainable food systems. With an array of high-profile speakers and panellists, we will discuss the policies, leadership, and partnerships required to transform African food systems, so they deliver healthy diets for everyone. These discussions and commitments from policymakers come at a crucial time in the lead up to the Global Panel’s Foresight report which will be released in time for the 2020 Nutrition for Growth summit in Tokyo.

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Six years on from the first Nutrition for Growth meeting in 2013, where distinguished leaders came together to create new global initiatives, including the Global Panel, we can look towards Tokyo 2020 with a greater scientific understanding of how food systems can deliver healthy diets.

What we need now is the leadership and collaboration across Africa to make this a reality, unleashing huge potential for societal and economic growth.