Millions of people experience food insecurity, with estimates that over 800 million go to bed hungry each night. And yet, we constantly hear that we produce enough food to feed every person in the world. How is this possible?

“When people say we have enough food for everyone, I think the important question is: What food is being talked about? Where is it grown?” Namukolo Covic, senior research coordinator at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), told Global Citizen. “And also the type of food that they are generally referring to — who, and how many people, can actually access it?”

A registered nutritionist, Namukolo works with the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). She is also on the leadership team for Action Track 2 of the UN Food Systems Summit, which is working on how to transform food systems to become more sustainable and improve food security and the quality of diets.

The reality is, there are a lot of factors that influence world hunger. Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and droughts and other extreme weather events to hit different regions of the world, which can upend agricultural systems and cause whole populations to lose access to a food source.

Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic impact local economies, making it difficult for people to afford the food they need to survive. And those living in regions ravaged by conflict — such as in Yemen and Syria — report famine-like conditions, as destabilized and inconsistent food sources become depleted.

Making sure that food is accessible and affordable to people everywhere is important. But it cannot be the only focus, as world hunger will continue to plague areas of the world that produce enough food but do not focus on nutrition.

How Do We Measure Global Hunger?

Organizations and public institutions generally estimate which countries have populations at risk of going hungry by assessing how much food is available and how many people do not have access to food. But Namukolo pointed out that this method prevents researchers from understanding the realities of hunger.

“If I use Africa as an example, a lot of countries have focused on staple food production for a long time. And many have made good progress. But if we measure hunger by the amount of calories per capita that are available in the country, we miss the full picture,” Namukolo said. “So even in the countries where 30% to 40% of people do not have enough to eat, their country in general may produce enough calories per capita. And the picture may look great in a lot of places, except it masks the realities [of hunger] on the ground.”

Staple foods like cereals are necessary to promote food security. They are generally high in the food energy we need to survive and make up a majority of the world’s caloric intake. But in our efforts to grow more food and make food more desirable — by selectively breeding and bioengineering them to be bigger, prettier, and tastier — we’ve lost some of the nutrients our bodies need.

“If I think back to my own childhood, I remember eating maize where you take a cob of maize and there are multiple colors on the cob — we’ve bred all that out,” Namukolo said. “And essentially what we’ve done is we’ve made maize less nutrient-dense.”

She also pointed out that just three staple crops act as major food sources for most people: rice, wheat, and maize. While these grains are popular because of their ability to be grown around the world, they are not as well adapted to survive some of the worst effects climate change has on agriculture and do not provide much in the way of variety.

To make sure the food we grow is nutritious, experts are working on how to pack staple crops with nutrients. But Namukolo acknowledged that people cannot survive on cereal grains alone. 

“We need a diverse, nutrient dense food basket,” she said. “So much of the work that is being done now on bio-fortifying some of the staple foods like maize, wheat, rice, and cassava with higher amounts of vitamin A, for example, or protein, can help increase consumption of such nutrients. But at the same time, I think focusing just on staples is not helpful. We need to focus on other crops, other foods.”

What Is a Healthy Diet?

The UN’s Global Goal 2 is working to achieve zero hunger by 2030. Knowing that the food we have on the planet is not reaching everyone, and is not providing sufficient amounts of nutrients to stave off hunger and malnutrition, it’s clear that we need to investigate the eating patterns and abilities of people everywhere. To start, we need to figure out what exactly defines a healthy diet.

This year, the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 put together the definition of a healthy diet that Namukolo refers to during discussions of food insecurity.

A healthy diet is health-promoting and disease-preventing. It provides adequacy without excess of nutrients and health promoting substances from nutritious foods and avoids the consumption of health-harming substances.

UN Food Systems Summit 2021

“[The definition] is all-encompassing, and you can apply it to whatever place you are in. Whatever you are eating, it should be health-promoting and it should also help you to prevent disease in some cases,” Namukolo said. “If you are in North America, it might mean cutting down the size of your steak because too much of it is not good for your health. If you’re in an African country where you do not have enough protein and micronutrients, then you can have your small piece of meat as a reachable target that is good for your health without the excesses that we might envy.”

In the United States, over 35 million people lived in food-insecure households in 2019, in part due to low access to fresh and nutritious food, particularly for people in food deserts. Of the 768 million undernourished people in 2020, 418 million live in Asia and 282 million live in Africa.

While low- and middle-income countries are more vulnerable to experiencing food insecurity, healthy diets are out of reach for millions of people in every region of the world. That’s why the definition of a healthy diet must be specific enough to ensure people are accessing nutritious food sources but general enough to apply to regions that have unique factors contributing to hunger.

Healthy diets should also be assured by increasing access to fruits and vegetables for people everywhere. While staple crops can generally grow in different regions of the world, it’s difficult to come up with a list of fruit and vegetables that can be applied everywhere. For this reason, Namukolo said it’s important to consider local food systems when addressing hunger and malnutrition.

“Every local context is different, so eventually we just talk about green leafy vegetables because it varies,” she said. “Paying greater attention to some of the traditional and indigenous vegetables that are actually adapted to the climate and a local area would be useful. I don’t think they’re getting enough attention, and they should be a focus area for food systems’ transformation.”

How Can We Promote Healthy Diets Everywhere?

Increasing access to healthy diets is not going to be an easy task. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030, despite nearly a decade of progress. This is in part due to the long lasting impacts of climate change, conflict, and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which have disrupted food systems.

“Isn’t it a pity that you asked me earlier about the fact that we have enough food to feed everyone on the planet, yet we have been told by the most recent State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 report that 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet,” Namukolo said. “That discrepancy should be a wake up call that our food systems need to be transformed. With those kinds of numbers it shouldn’t even be a question.”

With news that climate change is challenging how people access food, leading more people to pursue climate friendly diets, Namukolo pointed out that food systems cannot — and should not — look the same everywhere.

People who live in developing countries may need to up their consumption of some macronutrients and micronutrients and focus on adapting their agricultural systems to maximize harvest sustainably. For people in wealthier countries, healthy diets can be promoted by increasing access to fruits and vegetables while cutting back on meat and salt consumption, for example.

“We have a definition for a healthy diet that we can use to contextualize different needs and situations,” Namukolo said. “Excess is not good for us; it is not good for our planet either. And by reducing excess and maximizing what is good, we actually do good for the planet, as well.”

Starting at the local level will help. Diversifying staple crops to expand past rice, wheat, and maize can provide access to necessary nutrients and adapt to a changing climate. Namukolo offered the example of sorghum and millets — two more nutrient-rich, drought-tolerant grains — as a way to promote healthy diets in warm regions of the world.

“When we don’t have enough rains, sorghum and millets do better,” Namukolo said. “We have a lot of diverse foods that are available in different places in the world that we need to pay more attention to, and that may be where more resilience in the long term will come from. We don’t want to lose [these resources] as we seek to augment our food baskets as the climate changes.”

To best end world hunger, food systems need to be able to easily adapt. Crops that may have been successful in the past may not survive heavy rains or long periods of drought today. And just because a nation produces enough calories to support its population does not mean it is promoting a healthy diet for everyone.

“We need to think in a nuanced way to address food systems’ transformation at the local level,” Namukolo said. “It’s at the local level that hunger manifests itself. It’s at the local level where stories about production and healthy diets and nutrition ought to be considered if you want to express the true situation [of world hunger] and what needs to be done.”

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