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A brave new world for safe and reliable foods

April 6, 2016 by Peiman Milani and Katharine Kreis

As the global climate changes, how do we ensure sustainable and resilient food systems? Two PATH experts look to the future.
Man holding out a bowl of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and a spoon.

Photo: PATH/Eric Becker.

This post was originally published March 31 on the Global Food for Thought blog.

Climate change, demographic and epidemiologic shifts, resource scarcity, and increasing access to technology and information are rapidly changing priorities and approaches to addressing global health and development around the globe. The newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve as a clarion call as we look for more integrated ways to work together as a global community, holding all nations accountable by addressing some of the largest problems afflicting people around the world.

Nutrition is a growing problem

A few years ago, The Lancet produced a seminal series on the burgeoning problems associated with undernutrition and obesity in women and children, especially those living in low- and middle-income countries.

Besides recognizing that nutrition is a complex topic, the authors called out 13 proven “nutrition-specific” interventions that could address everything from immediate causes of undernutrition (such as inadequate dietary intake) to underlying causes (such as feeding practices and access to food).

And yet, even if we could scale up the top 10 nutrition-specific interventions in the countries with the highest burdens, current estimates indicate that childhood mortality would only be reduced by 15 to 20 percent and stunting by only about 20 to 25 percent.

At PATH we asked ourselves what was missing. These projected impact numbers were unacceptable. What could we do to ensure better outcomes for these children?

It’s a little like cooking a balanced meal

A collage of a woman cooking, a pan with insects in a sauce, plates of rice, and a small child wearing a white T-shirt.

Health is impacted by access to nutritious foods, clean water, and sanitation. Photo collage: PATH/Megan Parker.

As we looked at these issues comprehensively, we knew, as did our colleagues, that interventions and innovations that worked together with disciplines such as agriculture and WASH (water, air, sanitation, and hygiene) could help turn the dial on childhood mortality and stunting.

The central axis for these interventions is the food system. Food value chains are critical to the availability and quality of diets and are primarily controlled by the private sector—whether small holder farmers or big agribusiness. Building resilience into food systems so they better resist and bounce back from shocks—climate-related and otherwise—requires a multipronged approach that touches all nodes of the value chain and the chain as a system.

One area of particular interest for PATH is how we link livestock to animal-source foods and amino acids, given the important role the latter plays in child linear growth. We’re exploring new approaches that could ensure the sustainable and resilient supply and distribution of animal-source foods to underserved populations, including the development of new vaccines for livestock, improvements in feed, and the leveraging of underutilized animal-source foods such as eggs, edible insects, and small rodents.

Insects on barbeque skewers cooking over hot coals.

As we look for nutritional food solutions that can be applied around the globe, we must leverage underutilized foods such as eggs, edible insects, and small rodents. Photo: PATH/Megan Parker.

Towards resilient and nutrition-sensitive food systems

To ensure these resilient and nutrition-sensitive food systems ultimately deliver health, socioeconomic, and environmental impact, we need innovation in three interrelated and particularly promising areas:

1. Technologies to improve nutrition, food safety, and generate income. Technological breakthroughs need to better address access, demand, consumption, and absorption of high-quality and safe food and to link those to income generation and women’s empowerment. An example is kitchenware that better retains micronutrients and facilitates diet improvements, reduces indoor air pollution and carbon emissions, and saves time for mothers.

Hands threading insects onto a barbeque skewer over a skillet holding more insects.

Photo: PATH/Megan Parker.

2. Nutrition intelligence: data, analytics, and knowledge. Better measurement and tracking, analysis, visualization, and use of nutrition-relevant data and analytics can help policy and program managers make more informed, evidence-based decisions with the potential for greater impact. For example, digital anthropometrics and data visualization software will make it easier to gather, track, and understand trends.

Health worker preparing to weigh an infant with a hanging scale.

A health worker weighs a young child on a hanging scale to gauge how well the child is thriving. PATH/Doune Porter.

3. Expanded delivery channels for nutrition impact. Key nutrition outcomes are impacted by access to nutritious foods, clean water, and sanitation. But equally important are education and behavior modifications such as keeping girls in secondary school, spacing births, preventing malaria during pregnancy, and addressing household air pollution, to name a few. Underutilized touchpoints with the population must be leveraged to improve nutrition status, whether through access to nutritious foods or to information and education.

The  multitude of challenges and risks to food systems brought about by global forces (which are gathering momentum), require that we rise to this challenge through innovation that emerges from cross-sector, cross-discipline, and cross-geography partnerships with the SDGs as its North Star. Nothing short of that will do for our and future generations.