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Improving Nutrition Can Save Lives – and the Planet

Investing in better nutrition can yield significant health and economic benefits and help to tackle climate change. Nutrition, agriculture, and climate experts must collaborate to seize that opportunity and build a future in which people consume the food they need while preserving the planet.

TORONTO – When world leaders, activists, campaigners, and chief executives gathered last month at the United Nations in New York City to discuss the world’s most pressing challenges, the climate crisis dominated the headlines. By contrast, nutrition – one of the cornerstones of human, economic, and environmental progress – received surprisingly little attention.

True, world leaders began the week of UN General Assembly meetings by signing a landmark political declaration on universal health coverage. But although the declaration recognized nutrition as a contributing factor to good health, it did not single it out as a priority. That was not unusual: policymakers often cite inadequate diet as a key barrier to progress, but only rarely make better nutrition the focus of action. By taking this approach, the world is missing a huge opportunity.

World Food Day (October 16) and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (October 17) offer an opportunity to address some of the misconceptions regarding nutrition. This is a vitally important effort, because each of us can play a role in helping to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030 – one of the targets of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2.

Many people associate malnutrition exclusively with undernourishment in the world’s poorest countries. But, as the Global Nutrition Report has repeatedly stated, malnutrition can take multiple forms and is a universal issue that no country can afford to overlook – including leading advanced economies such as the United States.

According to the 2018 Global Nutrition Report, the US is off track on all its nutrition targets except under-five stunting and wasting, and also is one of seven countries where more than one million children are overweight. Rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in the US have reached alarming levels. Moreover, poor nutrition is not just harming people’s health; it is also the most serious threat to the country’s public health-care system.

Nutrition is one of the smartest investments a country can make. According to the World Bank, a stronger focus on nutrition within health services could save 3.7 million lives globally by 2025. Nutrition investments also make economic sense: every $1 spent on basic nutrition programs results in an estimated $16 returning to the local economy. Given these benefits, the world must push nutrition much higher up the agenda.

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As with many global challenges, policymakers often take an outdated, silo-based approach to nutrition. Yet, at least 12 of the 17 SDGs contain targets and indicators that are relevant to nutrition. That means there is a clear, mutually reinforcing benefit in increasing collaboration across different areas of development – in particular between nutrition and climate change.

In that regard, I was pleased to hear food systems being mentioned during last month’s UN Climate Summit. Furthermore, various expert reports, including by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have started to warn about the negative links between food systems, diets, and the climate crisis.

These connections are significant. A paper published by the Global Nutrition Report shows that food production uses 70% of the world’s freshwater supply, agriculture produces 13% of all greenhouse-gas emissions, and livestock uses 77% of the world’s agricultural land. And climate change, in turn, affects food systems and diets. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has found that increasingly frequent droughts and floods are reducing agricultural productivity, while rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are robbing plants of the nutrients and vitamins we need to survive.

Given this knowledge, those of us tackling nutrition and climate challenges cannot simply keep fighting in our respective corners. Over the next few years, we have the chance to turn these two global crises into one great opportunity: to reshape the world’s agriculture and food systems, while ensuring that everyone has access to nutritious food. But nutrition, agriculture, and climate experts must collaborate to seize that opportunity and build a future in which people consume the food they need while preserving the planet.

Finally, the private sector needs a bigger seat at the table. After all, a single global food company can reach over one billion people every day through its products. If such a firm chooses to make nutritious foods more accessible and affordable, the impact on consumers’ diets and health could be huge.

Some businesses have already made positive moves, such as introducing more transparent content labeling or reducing the amount of sugar in their products. But, given the private sector’s capacity and reach, progress is simply too slow.

Following pressure from civil-society organizations, governments have turned to regulations to compel businesses to do more. Denmark, for example, introduced a virtual ban on the sale of products containing trans fats, while South Africa was the first country to legislate maximum salt levels in processed foods.

Food companies must choose: they can either wait for governments to impose tougher regulations, or they can get ahead of the curve, work with the nutrition community, and show their consumers and stakeholders that they care about what people eat. Good nutrition can also be good business.

It would be easy simply to blame governments or the private sector for the lack of action so far. But if nutrition is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, that is partly because we have failed to make the issue visible and relevant to those actors that can bring about change.

The nutrition community must therefore leave its comfort zone and engage with decision-makers focusing on health, agriculture, climate change, and other big global issues. At the 2020 Global Nutrition Summit in Japan, key players from around the world are expected to renew their commitments to end malnutrition. Part of our duty will be to ensure there is space for a wider range of stakeholders to help meet this goal.

Malnutrition is one of the greatest challenges facing the world, but it is solvable. We already know how to protect our planet while improving the diets and health of millions of people. Now we must start doing it.

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