A wake up call: new figures reveal the scale of the burden of malnutrition

20 Sep 2018

‘The absolute number of people in the world affected by undernourishment, or chronic food deprivation, is now estimated to have increased to nearly 821 million.’

821 million. Let’s put that into perspective. For every 9 people alive, one of them suffers with undernutrition. Except, of course, it disproportionately affects people in low- and middle-income countries putting a ceiling on individual, societal and national development.

Why this blog now? Well, last week the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released 2018’s, ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’. The report, which monitors progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets of ending hunger and ending all forms of malnutrition, is in its second year. It had some striking statistics, including the 821 million figure.

We have made enormous progress. In 1990, 39.3% of the world’s under-fives were stunted. This had fallen to 23.2% in 2015. And yet the FAO report shows that this progress is stalling. The number of undernourished (821 million) has increased by 20 million since 2016. Further, nearly 151 million children under five were stunted and 50 million were wasted. Nearly half of all child deaths can be linked to undernutrition. But nutrition is much more than this. Yes, it saves lives, but it also unlocks potential. Good nutrition improves school outcomes, helps people to fend off disease, promotes healthy physical and mental development, and enables an individual to live their best possible life.


Children eat breakfast at a school in drought-stricken Ambovombe in southern Madagascar. Photo: Tom Maguire/RESULTS UK

But it’s not all about the headline figures. Micronutrient deficiencies can have serious impacts on people’s lives and are avoidable. Consider anaemia, which can be caused by a deficiency in iron. It disproportionately affects women and rates of anaemia in women is rising. One in three women of a reproductive age is anaemic. This can be worse in some countries. As RESULTS showed in a 2016 report, 51% of women in Pakistan who are of a reproductive age are anaemic, and only 22% of women take the full 90 course of iron supplements during pregnancy. A person’s gender, and their place of birth, should not be a factor in their likelihood to be malnourished.

So why has progress stalled? The report cites conflict, instability and climate change. Conflict is pushing people into food insecurity and nutrition insecurity. Climate change is making weather more extreme and more unpredictable impacting on those who rely most on access to secure, stable and bountiful crops to survive and maintain good nutrition. This is a huge issue that needs readdressing. However, if we only focus on the causes of insecurity and climate change we risk missing out on those who are undernourished for neither of those reasons. This is not just a humanitarian issue - it is a development issue. Responses cannot focus solely on one aspect. We need a whole-scale and holistic approach to a whole-scale and holistic problem.

This is not just about having food. It is about having the right type of food and a variety in your diet. And it is not just about nutrition. SDG2 underpins so much of the sustainable agenda. Education, gender equality and reduced inequality are just some examples of areas we risk stagnating or reversing progress in if we do not get nutrition right.

I believe that we can meet the SDG target of ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition. I’m not a perennial optimist, believe me. But I believe we can succeed. I believe that this report’s 2030 edition can be a celebration of success. But it will not happen with inaction or business as usual. We need innovation and partnership and other buzzwords and, yes, we need financial resources. But what do we need more than anything else? We need voices, voices all across the world that echo through all the corridors of power. The voices of people like you who are not going to settle for a world which allows people to suffer with malnutrition because governments don’t act. And that’s where you come in. Consider this report the wake-up call that signals the starting pistol for action. Let’s get to work.

Callum Northcote

Policy Advocacy Officer (Nutrition)

Callum Northcote leads RESULTS UK’s policy advocacy work on nutrition. Callum firmly believes that policy change is an essential way to readdress global inequality and that undernutrition is a major barrier to progress. Callum has previously worked for the Scottish Government and in advocacy...

Archive

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive all the latest news and information.

RESULTS UK is a charity registered as RESULTS Education in England and Wales (1015286), a company limited by guarantee (2761858), and a charity registered in Scotland (SC041481).