Using the Data Revolution to Solve the Malnutrition Crisis

The numbers are clear: today, just over 800 million people will go to bed hungry, while two billion are suffering from hidden hunger (receiving enough calories to survive, but not enough micronutrients to thrive). At the same time, nearly 40% of the global population is over-nourished, leading to overweight, obesity and a variety of non-communicable diseases, such as type-2 diabetes.

It gets worse. According to the World Health Organization, poor nutrition continues to cause nearly half of deaths in children under five, while low- and middle-income countries are witnessing a simultaneous rise in childhood overweight and obesity, at a rate 30% faster than in richer nations. This, in short, is unacceptable.

As we all know, hunger and malnutrition have serious consequences. The effects are particularly devastating if they occur in mothers and young children during the ‘First 1000 Days’ of life – roughly the period from conception to a child’s second birthday. While children who are well-nourished during this period grow up to learn more, earn more and stay healthy longer, those children who are malnourished will suffer irreversible and lifelong damage, included stunted growth, impaired cognitive development and a higher risk of non-communicable diseases, including diabetes, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure.

With current projections showing that ever fewer people will live in rural areas by 2030, while the urban population is expected to reach 5 billion, it’s clear that, over the next few decades, fewer people will be producing food, while more people will be demanding it – even though we are already failing to get enough healthy, nutritious food to everyone who needs it.

What, then, is to be done?

Today, much of the focus in solving hunger and malnutrition lies at the production side, with the basic thinking being that we simply need to produce more food. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. For example, in the United States -where there is sufficient nutritious food available – children still suffer from malnutrition. Just this week, the Global Health Corps, co-founded by Barbara Bush, released a new report “The First 1,000 Days: Nourishing America’s Future”, which finds that an incredible four out of five children in the U.S. are not receiving the ten essential building blocks needed in the First 1,000 Days.

Indeed, one of the most alarming facts in the report is that the most commonly consumed vegetable for 1-year-olds in the US is not peas, carrots or broccoli… but french fries (potatoes)! Meanwhile, in India, although the number of people receiving enough calories to survive has increased, many people are still suffering from hidden hunger as they are not consuming the right kinds of foods to get all the vitamins and nutrition they need to live a healthy life and thrive.

In this context, ‘more’ is not the answer. Indeed, if we’re going to tackle hunger and malnutrition, we need to not just be looking at production issues; we also need to be much more focused on what drives consumer behavior. Looked at in this way, what is really needed is a shift in how we look at the food system – from a model in which we just ‘produce and consume’ to a situation in which we look at the food system as a whole, encompassing production (agriculture and grain/food processing), distribution and the consumer. This more integrated approach produces results. For example, by looking at what nutrients people are missing and combining this knowledge with the most popular food products in a particular region, we can identify what is needed and subsequently use broad, cross-industry partnerships – including private sector partners – to scale up targeted solutions.

To develop this more integrated approach to the food system at scale, certain challenges will need to be overcome – one of the most important of which is around data. Put simply, the key players in the global food system, whether that’s governments, NGOs or business – will need to be much braver about making relevant data – for example, around micronutrient profiles and consumer preferences – much more accessible and sharing it across the value chain. This is key to generating the insights we need to get closer to our goal of zero hunger with good nutrition.

This week, at the GODAN (Global Open Data for Agriculture & Nutrition) Summit in New York, we have an important opportunity to take a significant step towards a more effective, data-driven global food system as stakeholders come together to discuss how to make data about the nutrition content of crops and foods and the nutritional status of consumers available, accessible and usable. Part of the work will be around understanding how other data systems – beyond the food system – impact our ability to ensure everyone has enough nutritious food to eat. This is key. Effectively addressing many of the other global challenges, including climate change and rapid urbanization, are crucial to our ability to end hunger and malnutrition. Indeed, as Johan Rockström and Pavan Sukhdev recently argued: food connects all the sustainable development goals.

Of course this approach will present challenges of its own. Most importantly, it will require us to understand and integrate data from a variety of sources. But the prize is worth it. By harnessing the growing volume of data generated by new technologies, we will be able to develop a food system that is less wasteful, targeted at specific nutritional needs and, crucially, matches producer activities with consumer preferences, ushering in a new era of not just food security, but nutrition security. With the data revolution, we have the opportunity to tackle hunger and hidden hunger once and for all – we should grab it.

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