A Paradigm Shift To Improve Diets And Food System Resilience
Unhealthy food habits drive obesity

In the past forty years, the world has done “really well” on improving food availability.  But  meanwhile, diets have shifted in “very bad”, unhealthy directions. Even people who can afford nutritious food are opting for junk food instead, said Steve Godfrey, of the Geneva-based food and nutrition NGO, GAIN, at a conference on food systems hosted by Geneva’s Graduate Institute on Tuesday.

Improving food systems is essential because diet is the “single biggest cause” of disease burden worldwide, added Lina Mahy, WHO’s Technical Officer for Nutrition and Food Safety, who also spoke at Tuesday’s event.

Unhealthy diets claim 11 million lives a year. They also lead to stunting in 20% of children worldwide, and contribute to malnutrition in a third of the population.

“Sugar now is more dangerous than gunpowder”, said Githinji Gitahi, CEO, of the Nairobi-based NGO Amref Health Africa. “More people are dying of sugar than from terrorism and violence…Three times as many people are overweight and obese than those that are hungry.”

At the same time, accessing sufficient food has become an even bigger challenge for many people living on subsistence incomes and diets, particularly in COVID-challenged times. 

School feeding programmes – an important component of nutrition support for children and adolescents  – have shut down completely in some communities, said Igbeka. Products that would have been used by schools remained in producer’s warehouses, where their storage capacity is “very limited” and technologies for long-term preservation are minimal.

After Ebola, “nothing was done” to build resilient health and food systems, said Gitahi, and we are facing the same challenges now. 

“Food is about dignity,” he added, describing food security as a foundation of health.   

Government Lockdowns Have Far-reaching Impacts On Frail Food Systems

COVID-19 had ‘minor impact’ on 3% of businesses surveyed

In Africa, government-imposed lockdowns have had ‘far-reaching’ impacts on already-frail food systems because workers have not been able to get to production sites or access their farms, said Uduak Igbeka, Country Support Manager for the SUN Business Network, a global movement of 61 countries to end malnutrition.

And closed borders have limited exports of foods like avocados or eggs from Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana.

In West Africa, restrictions on movement have “seriously” impacted the planting season – and have slashed production volumes and sales, while also destabilizing food prices in the whole of Africa:

In one study of some 340 small- and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs), 80% reported decreased food sales, and only 3% said that the coronavirus had ‘little impact’ on their business, she added. Over 50% of businesses said the impact was ‘considerable’ and ‘difficult to manage’, with almost one fifth risking closure.

“We can see that there is high demand for technical support”, said Igbeka. “We are carrying out capacity building initiatives in different countries to see how we can bring the right knowledge [to SMEs] and [help] businesses adapt to the current situation [so that they can] survive it themselves.”

Fostering Food Resilience – Stronger Governance Critical

Bees are essential to pollinate food crops

The world has the tools to foster food system resilience for better health, said Gitahi. However, we need to use them “now” to build back better from the pandemic.

Good governance is part of the answer, he said.

Governments need to “make the link” between health, food and the environment said Mahy, because these systems don’t exist in a vacuum.

“Health and food are very intimately connected..the strength of our health systems depends on food [systems]” and on the environment, said Godfrey. 

Bees, for instance, are “essential for our food systems to work, but they’re dying”, said Mahy.

Protecting Health – Smart Investments, Legislation & Stakeholder Engagement 

Carefully-crafted policies also can nudge people to eat healthier food. They can make healthy food accessible to the most vulnerable, while shooing people away from toxic foods that are high in sugar, salt or unhealthy trans fats – principally by making them more expensive:

“We must bring legislation & regulation to the table, and civil society must force governments to improve regulation of unhealthy foods”, said Gitahi. “Countries need to regulate sugar imports, regulate unhealthy fats, and the time to do it is now.”

But such policies and rules also need public support – and that requires awareness-raising about the health benefits of balanced and varied diets:

“This is a time where dietary diversification needs to be emphasized… people need to know what to eat, there needs to be advice on what exactly is good.”

“Stakeholder engagement is very critical in gaining equity,” added Igbeka. “All players need to be able to understand what is in the best interest of each other.”

Data Is Vital To Identify Malnourished and Undernourished

Githinji Gitahi, CEO of Amref Health Africa.

Data is vital to identify groups that are suffering the most from poor access to food or lack of nutritious foods. 

While real-time data is plentiful for COVID-19, there is “very little clear data on food availability, pricing and differentials…that’s quite a big gap” that needs to be addressed, added Godfrey.

“In Africa, there is a lack of disaggregated data to determine who is vulnerable”, said Gitahi. ”Who do you give aid to if you don’t know who’s vulnerable? Data is extremely critical.” 

And even when there is data, it’s often not made publicly available, or it doesn’t target those that actually need help, mainly because of rigid eligibility criteria:

“We don’t know who to give [aid to], so you end up spreading [limited money] across everyone because you don’t know exactly [who needs help].”

According to Gitahi, the best way to improve access to food in Africa in the present health emergency is not going to be via the traditional aid paradigm of big conveys delivering sacks of flour, corn or basic necessities. Rather, data-driven approaches can identify households or communities in greatest need, and systems like mobile cash transfers can help ensure that aid reaches them for the purchase of basic necessities. 

Image Credits: Flip, photophilde.