Moving from food security to nutritional security

Photo: Tree Aid

Photo: Tree Aid

“Governments need to be held equally accountable for producing nutritious food as they are for increasing food production,” said Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Globally, 1 in 8 people are chronically hungry, and 1 billion are undernourished; the largest proportion of which live in Africa and South Asia.

According to Fan, hidden hunger, or the lack of micronutrients and minerals, is also a major challenge. More than 2 billion people are micronutrient deficient.

Among the effects of micronutrient deficiency are poor pregnancy outcome, impaired physical and cognitive development, increased risk of morbidity from disease and infection in children and reduced work productivity in adults.

Fan was speaking at the Crawford Fund’s Annual Parliamentary Conference in Canberra, Australia on 27 August 2014. The conference saw a range of presenters focus on the ‘well’ aspect of the theme – “Ethics, Efficiency and Food Security: Feeding the 9 Billion, Well” – emphasizing the need to move from achieving food security to achieving nutritional security.

“Elimination of hunger and malnutrition should be equally central to eliminating poverty,” said Fan as he put forward not just the ethical, but also the economic, case for why it is vital to address micronutrient deficiency.

“Hunger and malnutrition prevents people from escaping poverty,” he explained “It diminishes physical capability and education.” It is also costly, with global GDP loss due to hunger and malnutrition estimated at 5 per cent.

Yet investment in addressing hunger and malnutrition is estimated to have a tremendous payoff. For every dollar spent reducing chronic undernutrition, there is an estimated $30-pay-off.

Nutrition however has not always been seen as a top priority, falling behind the need to produce more food. The presenters at the conference agreed that for too long there has been a singular focus on increasing the productivity of staple crops to achieve food security.

Willie Dar, Director General of the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) stressed the need to get the best nutritional value from existing crops.

“We need to move from a focus on cereals to other sources of protein such as fruits, vegetables and legumes,” said Dar. “And this needs to connect with policy.”

In a 2013 paper, scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre synthesized what is already known about how agroforestry directly contributes to food and nutritional security. Lead author and head of research into Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery at Centre, Ramnis Jamnadass believes one area of huge potential for improving nutrition is in the range of less-used indigenous food found in forests and wooded lands.

“Such trees are often much richer in micronutrients, fibre and protein than staple crops. But with deforestation and forest degradation, there is less access to these foods, so cultivation is a key alternative which can effectively increase yields and quality,” said Jamnadass.

“Mixed agroforestry systems that incorporate locally important food trees together with staple crops support nutrition, minimize risks and can provide farmers’ with increased and stable incomes.”

Also given considerable attention at the conference, and equally disturbing, was the issue of overnutrition, with one third of the world’s population now overweight or obese.

Fan pointed out that this is not just an issue in the developed world; 62 per cent of overweight or obese people live in developing countries and 41 per cent of the world’s overweight and obese children live in Asia.

“Both undernutrition and overnutrition need our attention,” said Rachel Kyte, chair of the CGIAR Fund Council and World Bank Group Vice President. “The number of people affected by overnutrition is now larger than those affected by undernutrition.”

During his presentation, Fan outlined many of the obstacles to achieving nutritional security, These include: the disconnect which exists between agriculture and nutrition policies; underinvestment in food security and nutrition; unsustainable natural resource use in food production; trade restrictions; lack of social safety nets to protect the poorest; and gender inequality in agriculture.

“We need to reshape agriculture for improved nutrition and health,” said Fan. “We need to promote sustainable and resilient food systems, and invest in nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions.”

The challenge ahead of us is to work out “how we can produce more nutritious food with less energy, water and emissions”.

Kyte suggested that if stunting is included as in indicator in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are currently being finalized, then we would see an increased focus on nutrition. “The SDGs are important, because that is what the UN and other agencies will put their money into.”


The Crawford Fund is a non-government organization and charity that promotes and supports international agricultural research for developing countries.

See also: Diversity key to improving food and nutritional security through agroforestry

Download the World Agroforestry Centre paper: Agroforestry, food and nutritional security'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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