The COVID-19 crisis has had several unexpected effects, including renewed attention to food security concerns. Earlier understandings of food security in terms of production self-sufficiency have given way to importing supplies since late 20th century promotion of trade liberalisation.
Transnational food business
Disruption of transnational food supply chains and the devastation of many vulnerable livelihoods by policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have revived interest in earlier understandings of food self-sufficiency. But, even if successful, winding back policy will not address more recently recognised food challenges such as malnutrition and safety.
All too many food researchers have been successfully compromised, e.g., with generous research and travel funding, by food and beverage businesses to discourage criticisms of their lucrative business practices.
It is important for authorities to make sure that food is produced safely for consumers. The authorities should not only be concerned when food exports are blocked by foreign importers for failing to meet phytosanitary standards.
Is food safe for consumption? Are toxic agro-chemicals putting consumers at risk? Are anti-biotics, used for animal breeding, putting animal and human health at risk of antimicrobial resistance? Are food-processing practices compromising consumers’ nutrition?
Malnutrition threat looming larger
The world has to deal with three major types of malnutrition, i.e., dietary energy undernourishment, or hunger; ‘hidden hunger’, due to micronutrient deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements; and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Many of the poor typically lack means to improve their condition, with the poorest often lethargic, due to not getting enough to eat, or not being able to gain sufficient nourishment from food due to gastrointestinal diseases, typically due to poor sanitation and hygiene.
Although hunger and starvation have reportedly been declining in recent decades, dietary energy undernourishment has been falling more slowly than poverty although the poverty line is supposedly defined by an income level to avoid hunger.
The nutrition situation in the world remains worrying as other manifestations of malnutrition – including stunting, obesity, diabetes and anaemia – have been growing, or declining slowly at best, according to available official evidence.
Micronutrient deficiencies threaten human health and wellbeing, but rarely get much public policy attention. ‘Hidden hunger’ is due to diets lacking essential micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, trace elements – vital for the body to develop and function well.
Insufficient vitamin A, iron, calcium and zinc seem to be the major micronutrient deficiencies of public health importance. All too many people are anaemic, with especially serious consequences for women of reproductive age.
In many countries, iodine deficiencies have been successfully tackled by iodizing salt, while vitamin A is typically tackled with costly supplements for children under five. Such hidden hunger is usually better addressed by dietary diversity to consume food with the needed micronutrients.
Biofortification can help, but for this to work well, close collaboration is needed between nutritionists and dieticians on the one hand, and scientists working to improve food crops and animal-source foods on the other.
Most parents are not aware that the ‘first 1000 days’, from conception until the child is two, is most critical for child development. Maternal and infant malnutrition start during pregnancy, especially with pregnant mothers suffering micronutrient deficiencies or diet-related NCDs.
We can and must do much more to enable and promote ‘exclusive breastfeeding’ for the first six months of every child’s life. Various work and maternity leave arrangements as well as childcare facilities should be made available to enable widespread adoption of such practices.
While international measures suggest that wasting, stunting and underweight among children are declining all too slowly, child undernutrition remains high, with national shares still rising in many, including middle-income countries.
Child stunting adversely effects not only children’s physical development but also their cognitive development. How can societies and economies progress if future generations continue to be handicapped from the outset?
The crises of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related NCDs in middle-income countries remains alarming, with NCDs among the leading causes of premature death and disability. The prevalence of overweight, obesity, diabetes and related morbidities has increased in most countries.
Overweight and obesity are risk factors for NCDs, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers, which reduce the quality of life and productivity, unnecessarily raising health costs, both private and public.
Often, people are not aware of the consequences of eating much more carbohydrates, calories or ‘dietary energy’ than they normally use or need. Over-eating – often wrongly termed over-nutrition or over-nourishment – often leads to diet-related NCDs and their consequences.
Various non-infectious diseases are due to what we have eaten or drunk in excess, especially processed sugars. Excessive consumption of ‘starchy’ foods or carbohydrates raises blood sugar levels which cause diabetes and other problems including excessive weight gain. Thus, sugar ‘addiction’ directly contributes to various malnutrition problems.
Meanwhile, excessive salt consumption contributes to hypertension or ‘high blood pressure’ which, in turn, causes various other health problems. Meanwhile, deep fried food has become the most popular type of ‘fast food’, concealing possible staleness or even ‘rotting’, as more prepared meals are increasingly purchased and consumed, not prepared at home.
Balanced, healthy diets
The consequences of not eating properly need to be widely understood. Healthy eating requires dietary diversity. Healthy diets should be adequately diverse, to ensure consumption of various foods. Consuming a variety of nutritious foods can supply all the nutrients people need.
We all need macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fats), without overeating staples like rice or bread, or fatty, sugary and salty food, and micronutrients, especially vitamins and minerals.
Governments, employers, family and peer pressure can help encourage better eating. Food regulations and meal arrangements can thus improve eating practices, behaviour and habits.
When people better understand the effects of their food behaviour, and have relevant, easily comprehensible and actionable knowledge and information, many will try to improve their food behaviour. But misleading ‘information’ from food and beverage companies and advertising firms is widespread and influential in popular culture.
The problem is made worse by popular, even iconic figures who dispense misleading ideas, even half-truths, as part of their own discourses and narratives, often without meaning to do harm, but as part of their own efforts to gain or retain popularity, legitimacy and authority.
Various media and popular culture – at the workplace, at worship and at home – as well as peers, family and friends greatly influence food behaviours. Women, typically the main caregivers, are particularly important, often choosing the food purchased, prepared and consumed.
Transforming food systems
Food systems need to be repurposed to better produce and supply safe and nutritious food. Ensuring that food systems improve nutrition is not just a matter of increasing production. The entire ‘nutrition value chain’ – from farm to fork, from production to consumption – needs to be considered to ensure the food system better feeds the population.
Food systems have to improve production practices, post-harvest processing and consumption behaviour. Resource use and abuse as well as environmental damage due to food production and consumption need to be addressed to ensure sustainable food systems.
Governments must realise that improving nutrition is crucial for economic and social progress. No country can achieve and sustain development with a malnourished population. Without healthy people, future productivity and progress will be severely compromised.
Good nutrition and food safety are necessary for healthy societies and future progress. Governments should use the COVID-19 induced reconsideration of food security in relation to supply chains to better address malnutrition and safety issues.
Food security initiatives prompted by pandemic considerations should promote system changes that will encourage more sustainable and healthy diets. This opportunity to strengthen food systems must also prioritise nutrition, food safety and dietary diversity.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram, an economist, was the Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the United Nations.
Wan Manan Muda is a Visiting Professor at Alma Ata University in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. He was a Professor of Public Health and Nutrition at Universiti Sains Malaysia.