Malnutrition- A crisis in the making?

2019-10-16 12:47:46

       Op-ed by Vinod Ahuja, Representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO) in Mongolia          


When countries signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, there was a sense of hope and optimism. Among other things, the world leaders promised to lead us to a world without hunger and poverty by the year 2030. Four years later the world continues to be way off track meeting these targets but we still believe that we can become the “zero hunger generation.” This will however not happen unless we really redouble our efforts in pursuit of these goals.


The land of eternal blue sky—Mongolia—has some good news to offer when it comes to child undernutrition. Child stunting and wasting rates have declined rapidly over the last decade. Mongolia is one of the selected few countries in the region on track to meeting the targets on child stunting and wasting. In terms of annual average rate of reduction in stunting, Mongolia has the best record among all its Asia Pacific peers, and the extent of severe Child wasting is already below 0.5 percent—something to be proud of.


Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends. On all other indicators under ‘SDG 2—Zero Hunger’, Mongolia is also off track. According to latest estimates by UNFAO, 400,000 people (or 12 percent of total population) still do not have access to sufficient dietary calories to lead a healthy and active life; and there has been no progress on this count in the last 5 years. On the other hand, child and adult overweight and obesity is on the rise. Child overweight levels have risen from less than seven percent in 2006 to nearly 12 percent in 2016; adult obesity has risen from 16 percent in 2012 to almost 20 percent in 2016 and prevalence of Anemia among women of reproductive age (15-49) has risen approximately 16 percent in 2012 to almost 20 percent in 2016.


Food insecurity in Mongolia is higher in the capital city compared to smaller towns and rural areas. This indicates a changing face of hunger and malnutrition in Mongolia as people migrate to capital city in search of productive employment and better income opportunities but instead get caught into the web of seasonal informal employment, higher reliance on markets for meeting food needs and vulnerability to market shocks.


The health sector literature points to growing threats to public health, particularly in the area of nutrition. In 2016, it was estimated that globally Mongolia incurred the second highest national fraction of age-standardized cardiovascular mortality attributable to dietary risk factors—a situation stemming from the country’s historic dependence on animal-source foods and an underdeveloped agriculture sector. These imbalances are compounded by threats posed by rapidly globalizing food market and increasing rates of urban sedentary life.


Mongolia is already 70 percent urban and estimates are that by 2050, 85 percent of Mongolians will live in urban areas. Historically, urbanization has been seen as a sign of social and economic transformation. Cities have been recognized as important drivers of development and urban living has often been associated with better health and nutrition. Unfortunately the dietary transition that is unfolding in the present times is leading to consumption of foods which are high in refined starches, sugar, fats, salt, and processed foods. Consumption of food away from home (restaurants, fast food outlets, street food etc.) is on the rise resulting in higher access to junk foods on the cost of access to fruits, vegetables and other foods high in fiber.


Can we keep going like this? The simple and obvious answer is no. So what needs to change? Well, our way of producing, supplying and consuming food has to change. We need to produce food that delivers sustainable nutrition. That means we need to invest in a food system that delivers safe, nutritious and affordable food to all the people, preserves or enhances the quality of our land, water and pastures, reduces the impact of climate change and stops rapid loss of biodiversity. Producing a diverse variety of foods is crucial for providing healthy diets and safeguarding the environment.


Where to start and who leads? We all need to act. As said by Mahatma Gandhi, we all need to be the change we want to see. This means, starting at individual level, making healthier choices—increasing our intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains, consuming fewer foods and drinks with high content of refined sugars, saturated fats and/or salt, reducing consumption of industrialized foods in favor of more diverse and traditional foods, and educating ourselves about the environmental impact of the foods we eat. At the same time, governments, farmers, herders, private sector, development partners and the civil society must also all play their roles. Governments need to invest in sustainable food systems by implementing policies and programs that place higher priority on nutritious foods. The private sector needs to innovate to improve the nutritional quality of their products. And farmers and herders need to be incentivized to produce a wider variety of more nutritious foods. So every one of us has a role to play if we wish to see the pledge to end malnutrition in all forms by 2030 become a reality.


Like every year, this year as well all countries, including Mongolia, is celebrating World Food Day on October 16. This year’s theme is “our actions are our future”. We must act. And we must act now. Addressing hunger and malnutrition requires inclusive transformation of food systems. The good news is that solutions already exist to change unsustainable patterns in a way that enhances opportunities for all while also safeguarding our ecosystems. These solutions need to be adapted and adopted—urgently, and at scale.