We Have the Data: Let’s Meet the Deadline
Destan Aytekin, Ekin Birol
December 18, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many more people into hunger and malnutrition at a time when the rates of both were already unacceptably high and alarmingly on the rise. An analysis, released Dec. 11 by the Standing Together for Nutrition Consortium, projects the devastating effects of COVID-19 on malnutrition outcomes in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) through 2022: an additional 9.3 million children wasted; 2.6 million children stunted; 168,000 child deaths; 2.1 million women suffering from maternal anemia; and 2.1 million children born to malnourished mothers. The Consortium said these health impacts would also translate into an estimated USD 30 billion in economic losses—all of which could be mitigated by investing an annual USD 1.2 billion in scaling up proven nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions.

Also recently published was the thorough and thoughtful analysis behind the “3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet” headline in the UN's 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report. Given this striking figure, it is not surprising that six out of the top ten risk factors for the global burden of disease are diet-related, according to a Lancet paper also recently published. 

Global decision-makers are determined to address this huge problem which has significant negative impacts across sectors, countries and generations. They are eager to get back on track toward achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals; the 2025 World Health Assembly Nutrition Targets, and 2025 goals for the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition. With only five to 10 years left to reach these targets and goals, 2021 is being viewed as a make-or-break year for nutrition when the twin Nutrition for Growth and UN Food Systems summits (both originally scheduled for 2020) will also be held.

As part of the twin summits, and other events leading up to them, commitments will be declared, decisions will be taken, partnerships will be formed, and investments will be made to help transform our fragile food systems to deliver sufficient, healthy diets for everyone, under any conditions. Several financial commitments, as well as promises for more, were already made on Dec. 14 at the Nutrition for Growth Year of Action Launch event hosted by the Governments of Canada and Bangladesh, in partnership with the Government of Japan and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

We have the data and we know the solutions

Only through scientific, data-driven decision-making can we ensure that investments in improving food systems and nutrition are efficient, effective, and equitable. We need evidence and data not only to identify the inefficiencies, inequities, and deficiencies in the food systems and the malnutrition outcomes they result in but also to identify the solutions that can tackle these. 

Fortunately, this year brought three new, complementary resources that should be at the fingertips of any food systems and nutrition decision-maker seeking to make a mark in 2021: the Food Systems Dashboard launched in July, Global Nutrition Report (GNR) country nutrition profiles launched this year, and a Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability/Nature Sustainability Expert Panel Report published last week.

Food Systems DashboardThis brings together key data on indicators measuring elements of food systems, drivers, and outcomes. It guides stakeholders, including decision-makers, implementers, and the research community, in their plans and actions linked to food systems. It is a "one-stop-shop" database that includes agricultural production data, food consumption/ expenditure data, and data on policies, regulations, and other enabling factors for nutritious food systems. 

The Global Nutrition Report country nutrition profilesThese complement the Food Systems Dashboard by providing stakeholders with snapshot pictures—at the global, regional, and country levels—of key malnutrition outcomes, current nutrition policies and interventions, and determinants of nutrition such as income, inequality, and water and sanitation. 

Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability/Nature Sustainability expert panel report: It uses the food systems categories defined by the Food Systems Dashboard and identifies which innovations and technologies (or bundles thereof) can be most (cost) effective, when and where, to not only improve nutrition and livelihoods outcomes but do so equitably and within planetary boundaries. 

The role of nutrient-enriched crops

Both the Expert Panel Report and the Standing Together for Nutrition Consortium paper called for scaling up of nutrient-enriched (or biofortified) crops to help improve food systems and diets in LMIC contexts, where nutritious diets are not imminently accessible, available, or affordable, and among vulnerable populations (e.g., women, adolescent girls, and children; refugees) with high nutrient needs and limited access to nutritious foods. The Food Systems Dashboard provides the latest data on the availability of biofortified crops for scaling up and the enabling policy environments for doing so.  

Having overseen the development and release of more than 240 biofortified varieties of 11 key crops across 30 LMICs; established the nutritional efficacy; program cost-effectiveness; and consumer and farmer acceptability evidence, and having benefited an estimated 50 million people with biofortified foods across its learning-based delivery programs, HarvestPlus is ready to lead the scaling up efforts for biofortification.  The year 2021 will be the time to turn data-driven and evidence-based strategies such as biofortification into concrete actions to nourish all! And HarvestPlus is ready to act. 

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