As we welcome in the new year, it is also time to say goodbye to the old. 2021 was a year filled with global health highlights and setbacks, but also carried the weight of expectation as a “Nutrition Year of Action”. Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and continued economic instability posed significant challenges for this Year of Action, there were several advancements for global nutrition that were cause for optimism.
The past year has shown how COVID-19 presents a multifaceted challenge for nutrition. On one hand, the virus has disrupted global food supply chains and weakened already beleaguered economies, making it even more difficult for people to obtain nutritious foods. At the same time, a healthy, balanced diet has also proven instrumental to fostering resilience against severe illness. 2021 continuously reminded us that there are important links between adequate nutrition and the impact of COVID-19.
In the summer of last year, the UN released a report called The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, which began to show us the depths of the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on nutrition so far. The multi-agency report estimated that a staggering 811 million people – one tenth of the world’s population – were undernourished in 2020. This number is larger in both absolute and proportional terms than previous years, outstripping population growth. It will be some months before the numbers from 2021 can be fully analysed, but given the scale of the ongoing pandemic, we can expect these negative trends to continue. Experts already predict an additional 13.6 million cases of wasting (low weight for height) by the end of 2022.
However, the close of 2021 also saw a moment of hope and solidarity for nutrition. Despite the enormous economic burden of COVID-19, governments and organisations from across the world pledged US $27 billion towards nutrition programming and goals at the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit held in December. For the first time, these N4G commitments will be monitored by a Nutrition Accountability Framework (NAF) to ensure data-focused results and stronger action on nutrition. The NAF not only promotes accountability, but also goals that are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and anchored within a Time frame.
Unfortunately, of this $27 billion in pledges, not a single pound came from the UK Government. This is particularly disappointing for a number of reasons. For one, the UK is one of the founders of N4G and hosted the first-ever summit in 2013. This inaugural event led to a remarkable 33% uplift in global nutrition spending and cemented the UK as a global leader in nutrition, with programmes that reached tens of millions of people in subsequent years. Without a financial commitment this year, the UK risks rolling back the years of progress its previous investments have achieved and damaging its well-earned reputation as a trusted international partner on nutrition.
The second reason the UK’s lack of commitment is so concerning is the prevalence that nutrition plays in the Government’s own stated goals for ending preventable deaths (EPD) and strengthening health systems around the world. The EPD strategy includes a particular focus on women and children, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisting “Women and girls are at the heart of the freer and fairer world I want to see.” Nearly half of all deaths among children under 5 are linked to undernutrition, and malnutrition is the leading cause of death in women, making nutrition central to achieving Truss’ objective of ending preventable deaths of mothers, babies, and children by 2030. Indeed, nutrition is included in two of the four pillars of the FCDO’s EPD plan, which promises to “promote global action on nutrition and sustainable food systems'' and to “support research to improve the delivery of health and nutrition services at scale.”
Nutrition is also highlighted in the FCDO’s recent paper on health systems strengthening, which acknowledges that “Good health and nutrition are the bedrock of resilient, inclusive, secure, stable, and prosperous societies.”
Whilst these papers stress the importance of nutrition, they were published on 14 December, just a week after the UK failed to make a financial commitment at N4G. The Nutrition Year of Action therefore ended on a mixed note for the UK, which acknowledged just how vital nutrition was to its global objectives while simultaneously failing to commit a single penny towards actually implementing any global nutrition programming at N4G.
Despite these disappointments, it is not too late for the UK to make commitments on nutrition in 2022 that will make valuable impacts this year and beyond. The FCDO’s International Development Strategy, due to be published in the spring, is the perfect opportunity for the Government to back up its rhetorical commitment to nutrition with a firm financial pledge.
Support for such a pledge can be found across political parties in Parliament. Members of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Nutrition for Growth, co-chaired by Conservative MP David Mundell and Labour peer Lord Collins, have long endorsed calls for the Government to allocate £120 million per year for nutrition-specific funding, as well as adding nutrition objectives to £680 million of preexisting funding in other areas. Such an investment would see life-saving returns, as every US $1 spent on nutrition programmes adds $16 back to the local economy, while at the same time ending preventable deaths.
There is also still time to reinforce these commitments by registering them with the Nutrition Accountability Framework. Doing so would show the UK’s dedication to transparent, SMART goals, and publicly reaffirm the UK as a global leader in nutrition rather than an absent one.
The Nutrition Year of Action may be over, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rising rates of malnutrition show that the time for action is now. It is not an overstatement to say that by making a strong financial commitment, the UK can turn 2022 into a new year for nutrition and help save millions of lives in the process.