Delivering healthy diets  

Abdul Bayes     | Published: November 24, 2017 22:09:52 | Updated: November 25, 2017 21:29:09

The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition recently released its latest policy brief in Dhaka. It was through a befitting ceremony,attended by the State Minister for Health and Family Welfare, policy makers, practitioners, researchers and donors. The Global Panel (henceforth GP), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), BRAC ,Global Alliance for Integrated Nutrition (GAIN), and Public Health Foundation of India (phfi)  brought together leading actors across Bangladesh to share key findings and recommendations arising out of the GP's latest policy brief: Healthy Diets for All: A Key to Meeting the SDGs. For Bangladesh, the importance of the meeting can hardly be overemphasised in the wake of pervasive malnutrition among its population. As we shall see later, increased supply of food is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a healthy and productive population.

This policy brief is, as claimed by Professor Patrick Webb, Technical Adviser, GP,  could be considered a clarion call to action for policy makers at all levels to recognize the central role of high-quality diets and nutrition in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. En passant, the readers should be reminded that, as opposed to MDGs, in the on-going SDGs emphasis is given  more to quality rather than quantity - be it for education or food. The gloomy news regarding agricultural growth is that despite substantial supply of food in South Asia, especially in Bangladesh that tripled its rice production, pervasive malnutrition persists under what is called 'Asian Enigma'.

The nexus between nutrition and earning has been well-articulated in the policy brief. It argues that poor nutrition is associated with low educational attainment, poor physical growth and low labour productivity. Healthy diets thus form the foundation to support successful progress towards targets in health, agriculture, inequality, poverty and sustainable consumption. In other words, one stone like nutritional improvement could possibly kill several birds - inequality in sustainable consumption, health costs, and income (proxied by  productivity).

The importance of healthy, high-quality diets is further reinforced by four key facts. First, there is a deepening nutrition crisis where malnutrition in all its forms affects one in three people worldwide and, if population and climate change increase as predicted, this could rise to one in two. Second, six of the top nine risk factors to global health are now related to diet. The risk that poor diet tends to pose to morbidity and mortality is now greater than the risk from air-pollution, alcohol, drug and tobacco used combined. Third, the effects of poor diets and nutrition are locking individuals and countries into long-term disadvantages. For example, child stunting can have life-long effects in terms of sub-optimal cognitive development, ill-health, impaired by physical growth and reduced earning potential. Finally, malnutrition severely impacts the productivity of many countries and, in the long-term, threatens inclusive growth. Across Asia and Africa, the estimated impacts of undernutrition on GDP is 11 percent. More importantly, addressing poor quality diets and malnutrition is critical to addressing many goals of SGDs not just SDG2.

The policy brief identified six priority areas for policy makers: (a) paying explicit attention to diet quality while developing plans to meet SDG; (b) adopt a food systems approach to improving diets; (c) focus on improved diets for children, adolescent girls and women; (d) collect and report data on diet quality; (e) address barriers and shocks impeding access to healthy diets, and (f) widen national policy approaches.

On regional level approaches to delivering healthy diets for all in South Asia, GP organized a round table discussion to articulate South Asia's nutritional policy challenges and determine how countries could work together in providing healthy diets to respective citizens. It was also to consider the food system challenges facing individual nations within the regional context, taking into account existing frameworks for action, how international leadership, cooperation and influence can foster innovative policy approaches to deliver healthy diets across South Asia, through a mechanism such as South Asia Policy Leadership for improved Nutrition (SAPLING). The post-lunch session saw a few presentations from  Patrick Webb,Professor Reddy,  Puravi Mehta, and Lalita Bhattachariya. A presentation from LANSA Bangladesh revealed that a number of researches  have been completed over the last few years to identify the nexus between agriculture and nutrition, determinants of malnutrition, ecology-based nutritional status etc.

Delivering decent diets thus constitutes the core concern especially in the light of fulfilling SDGs. It is not food supply per se but quality foods that matter for a healthy life. The most important lesson that the present author seems to have bagged from the discourse of GP is that malnutrition/undernutrtition is at the root of income inequality and poverty. The main approach to address this constraint is to, inter alia,  change agricultural policies towards greasing the growth of non-cereal crops, fruits and livestock products. Since the high prices of these commodities, in the wake of short supply,  remain within the reach of only the rich, a more egalitarian way would be to support the growth, marketing and distribution of these crops so that the poor in general can access them at an affordable price.  Finally, the take-home message is that malnutrition is not merely the product of a malfunctioning market or mono-crop sector but also the result of transport, storage, marketing, value chain etc. By and large, the food-systems approach need to be adopted to remove the misalignment between food supply and malnutrition.

Should nutrition be left to the whims of health ministry or a new nutrition ministry needed in the face of high value of nutrition in society?

Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.



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