Moving nutrition up on the development agenda

Fruit stand, New Delhi, India

Nutrition is critical to the healthy physical and cognitive development of individuals, as well as overall economic development. In the last few years, several levers, including new research evidence, IFPRI’s 2020 Conference on Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health, and the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement have contributed to moving nutrition up on the global and national agendas. However, there is much more to be done to effectively address the challenge of malnutrition worldwide.

Today, more than 2 billion people on the planet suffer from deficiencies in essential micronutrients such as iron, vitamin A, and zinc. In addition, an estimated 165 million children under-five are stunted and over 100 million children under-five are underweight. Overnutrition is also increasingly a concern, particularly in emerging economies and among children in the developing world. In Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa, for example, between 50-70 percent of the adult population is overweight. Moreover, over 30 million overweight children live in developing countries compared to 10 million in developed countries.

The Lancet series released on June 6 provides evidence on the importance of nutrition for broader development outcomes. The series which focuses on “Maternal and Child Nutrition” reevaluates the problem of undernutrition among mothers and children since the launch of the initial series in 2008, as well as the growing challenge and consequences of overweight and obesity among these groups. IFPRI researchers contributed to 2 of the 4 papers in the series. In their paper, Marie Ruel and Harold Alderman emphasize that effective, large-scale nutrition-sensitive programs that address the underlying determinants of nutrition and improve the coverage and efficacy of nutrition-specific interventions are key to nutrition improvements. Stuart Gillespie and Purnima Menon in their paper discuss the three domains—knowledge and evidence, politics and governance, and capacity and resources—which are crucial to attain the political momentum and results needed in the fight against malnutrition.

In 2012, IFPRI researchers, John Hoddinott, Mark Rosegrant, and Maximo Torero, contributed a challenge paper on “Hunger and Malnutrition,” to the Copenhagen Consensus of 2012—a major project which strongly influences the way aid and development funds are spent. The authors proposed that decision-makers prioritize micronutrient interventions and update the costs and benefits of implementing them. They note that chronic child undernutrition could be reduced by 36 percent in developing countries through a bundle of interventions comprised of micronutrients, improvements in diet quality, and better care—the cost is about $100 per child.

In the lead up to the G8 summit in mid-June, the UK Government, the Brazilian Government, and the Children’s Invest Fund Foundation co-hosted a “Nutrition for Growth” conference aimed at making financial and political commitments to address malnutrition. Research evidence, such as from the Lancet series and the Copenhagen Consensus challenge paper, is pivotal for prioritizing spending of the more than $4 billion pledged to tackle global malnutrition.

Commitments announced at the conference include a grant of more than $45 million to IFPRI’s HarvestPlus by the UK Government to develop and deliver fortified staple crops to millions of farming households throughout Africa and Asia. The Canadian Government committed a grant of nearly $20 million to the CGIAR Agriculture for Nutrition and Health program—which is led by IFPRI. 19 of the 40 Scaling Up Nutrition Movement countries also committed to increase their own investments in nutrition.

An integrated approach is needed to effectively tackle global malnutrition. Agriculture, especially smallholder agriculture, must be leveraged to improve nutrition outcomes. Given the increasing incidence of health risks along the food value chain, including agricultural-related diseases, special attention should be given to the safety of food systems. For the future many research gaps, such as the impact of agriculture on nutrition and vice versa, still exist. IFPRI has been playing a key role in filling these knowledge gaps and will continue to do so, particularly through the Agriculture for Nutrition and Health program.