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‘Year of Action’ launched for 2021 to advance ambitious global nutrition goals

A nurse screens a child for malnutrition at Dogo's Integrated Health Centre in Niger in 2018. Credit: Flickr - EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid

The launch of the Nutrition for Growth Year of Action aims to combat global hunger, exacerbated by Covid disruptions and climate change.

After a year marred by huge setbacks for global food security, a group of governments and nutrition organisations this week launched a forward-looking initiative for 2021 to address the global hunger and nutrition crisis.

The Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Year of Action is a year-long effort to mobilise new commitments to improve food security and follows a series of huge setbacks - wrought by the coronavirus pandemic as well as repeated onslaughts of crop-devouring locusts across large parts of Africa and Asia.

Over $3bn in financial commitments was announced by a variety of actors at the kick-off event earlier this week,  led by Canada, Bangladesh and Japan and Pakistan in partnership with UNICEF, the World Bank and World Vision International.

“The 2021 Year of Action is the perfect time to form new powerful alliances with champions in the food system, climate, biodiversity and social protection communities. Strong nutrition outcomes help everyone to build forwards better in this Covid era,” said Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Geneva-based Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), speaking at the launch.

Why is this important? The events of 2020, as well as longer term trends wrought by climate change and rural-urban migration have created a perfect storm for drastic increases in malnutrition, child wasting and stunting and maternal anemia.

“This year, because of the impact of the Covid-19 virus, a potential 270 million people are facing food insecurity. The most vulnerable are those who were food insecure or malnourished before the pandemic - largely women and children,” said Karina Gould, Canada’s minister of international development, speaking at the launch event.

The Year of Action will culminate in the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo in December 2021. A kick-off event in Tokyo, held on the eve of the opening ceremony of the Olympics aims to be a “springboard” moment to secure more high level commitments from countries to insure universal access to safe, affordable and nutritious food by 2030.

Prioritising nutrition post-pandemic. Speakers at this week’s event emphasised the need for countries to make nutrition a centrepiece of their Covid-19 response, recovery and resilience-building plans. Good nutrition can contribute to lessening the effects and risks of Covid-19, as well as “improving health, increasing education and lifetime earnings, and promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment,” said Gould.

Actions recommended by the Nutrition for Growth movement include: keeping food markets working, providing aid for malnutrition, leveraging social protection to stimulate nutritious food production and consumption, and forming alliances with climate and biodiversity organisations.

Already prior to the pandemic, malnutrition - usually a result of unhealthy diets that lead to  deficiencies, imbalances or excesses in nutrient intake - was the underlying cause of nearly half of all children’s deaths annually. Poor diets, overly reliant on cheap starches, processed foods or fast foods, which also drive obesity, were the number one cause of preventable death worldwide.

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A malnourished child is weighed at a clinic in the Abu Shouk camp for Internally Displaced Persons, North Darfur. Credit: Flickr - UN Photo.

“The pandemic has dramatically affected families’ lives and livelihoods, disrupting: access to nutritious, affordable diets; essential nutrition services; and child feeding practices in many countries around the world,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director.

She announced UNICEF's commitment to an annual investment of US$700m in nutrition programmes over the next five years at the launch event.

Women and children in poorer countries hit hardest. The nutrition crisis has an important gender dimension, as women are often involved in planting food, working the field, harvesting crops, and cooking meals. More than one billion women and girls suffer from malnutrition and they are twice as likely as men and boys to be malnourished. The worst consequences of the disruptions to the agricultural industry, economies, and nutrition services will fall on women and girls.

A new pre-print study published in Nature Research estimates that by 2022, Covid-19 could result in an additional 9.3 million wasted and 2.6 million stunted children, 2.1 million maternal anemia cases, 168,000 more child deaths. Over the next two years, another 153 children may die every day from Covid-related malnutrition alone, says Save the Children.

Covid, climate change and locusts - a revolving door of impacts. Covid-related border closures, trade restrictions, confinement measures, and job losses have prevented agricultural workers from harvesting crops and selling their produce. ood supply chains have been disrupted and led millions of individuals to lose the ability to feed themselves or their families.

These problems have also been compounded by massive swarms of desert locusts - 400 times usual numbers - that have plagued agricultural communities in the Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula, and Southwest Asia over the spring and summer.

New swarms forming in Ethiopia and Somalia, threaten to reinvade northern Kenya, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, the Food and Agriculture Organization said Wednesday. Hotspots of locust activity already have led to high levels of hunger and undernourishment.

The pandemic has added to difficulties  by hampering preparation efforts to contain the spread of the insects. Additionally, climate change is an important driver of locusts - since warmer weather leads to more rainfall, stimulating the growth of larger swarms.

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Locusts swarm near a farm in Kenya. Credit: EPA / Dai Kurokawa

Huge investments required. Recent pledges made by global leaders to invest some $3bn in nutrition programmes over the next four years, is significant, but not enough, experts say.

According to the new Nature Research study, produced by the Standing Together for Nutrition consortium, an additional investment of $1.2bn annually is needed for the next two years just to mitigate the immediate damage caused by Covid-19.

A joint report by the WHO, UNICEF, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Food Programme published in July estimated that even more - some $2.4 bn - is needed immediately to prevent and treat both undernutrition as well as parallel epidemics of overweight and obesity caused by unhealthy diets. These are in addition to the estimated $7bn annually already required to achieve the World Health Assembly Global Nutrition Targets for 2025.

Immediate actions. Key immediate strategies include vitamin A supplementation, promotion of breast-feeding, nutritious school meals and improved health screening for malnutrition, leaders of the initiative say. Other important strategies include: protein supplementation; counselling on diets for young children; and treatment of severe acute malnutrition.

This requires scaling up existing health services, and particularly nutrition interventions aimed at women and young mothers. Investment in better data collection on population dietary intakes, for example, is also critical.

“We know that to solve the complex problem of malnutrition, worsened by the Covid-19 crisis, interventions need to span across health, economic and food systems, and social protection programmes,” said Saskia Osendarp, executive director of the Micronutrient Forum, following Monday’s launch.

Added Haddad: “2021 is a make or break year for nutrition. Nutrition is the foundation of human survival, and how we treat our most vulnerable groups during crises...says much about our values as a society. By making the next year one of action for nutrition we can save nearly 10 million infants from a life of deprivation, destitution and even death.”

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