By Ruth Tene Natsa

The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, recently released two reports on “Food Systems and Diets: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century” and “Improving Nutrition Through Enhanced Food Environments”, funded by the Department For International Development (DFID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ruth Tene Natsa writes on the challenges and recommendations as proffered by the reports.

Poverty, rising population and attendant problems as well as low literacy level are challenges that confront many Nigerians at present. It is estimated that well over 100 million Nigerians live on less than $1 a day. There is no hiding the fact that hunger and malnutrition are realities which many Nigerians live with today which the current economic recession has compounded.

However, these challenges are not peculiar to Nigeria and Nigerians alone. The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, DFID, James Wharton MP in his foreword in the report “Food Systems and Diets: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century”, said malnutrition had far too long been a neglected issue, yet is a problem that affects one in three people worldwide.

The report unveiled on Tuesday, April 9, in Abuja, revealed that the world is facing a nutrition crisis with approximately three billion people from every one of the world’s 193 countries have low quality diets. It predicted that over the next 20 years, multiple forms of malnutrition would pose increasing threat to global health.

Population growth combined with climate change will place increasing stress on food systems, particularly in Africa and Asia where there will be an additional two billion people by 2050, the report added.

For obvious reasons, Nigeria is not exempted from these threats with a population of over 170 million, even as experts have indicated that the population is likely to increase to over 500 million by 2050 at the current rate of growth.

The report which stated that much of the world does not eat high quality diets, noted that diet is responsible for the largest burden of global ill health and needs immediate and urgent attention by policy makers.

It revealed that an estimated 45 percent of deaths of children under five are linked to malnutrition and the economic consequences of under nutrition represent losses of Gross Domestic Products of 10 percent year in and year out.

In Nigeria, it said the number of adults with type 2 diabetes is estimated to double between 2011 and 2030, from 3.1million to 6.1 million, this is even as it added that adult obesity rates are increasing in all 193 countries.

The report further posited that if current trends continue, the combined number of overweight and obese adults would increase from 1.33 billion in 2005 to 3.28 billion in 2030.

Presenting the Global Foresight Panel Report, Global panel director, Prof Sandy Thomas said many countries are experiencing a double burden of both undernourishment and overweight, including Nigeria.

Stating the specific priorities for action, Thomas said “policy makers should focus on food and agriculture policies on securing diet quality for infants and young children, improve adolescent girls and adult women’s diet quality as priority in all policy making that shapes food systems and ensure that food based dietary guidelines (FBDG) guide policy decisions to reshape food systems.”

She urged that policy makers should reshape food systems and make fruits, vegetables and seeds much more available as well as institutionalise high quality diets through public sector purchasing power, among several others

Also speaking, senior adviser on food security and nutrition to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Adeyinka Onabolu (PhD) who spoke on Nigeria’s food security and nutrition challenges and priorities, said 11 million children less than five are undernourished even as  47 percent of pregnant women are anaemic.

According to her, under nutrition exist alongside overweight and obesity. She said these issues are caused by lack of dietary diversity and inadequate child feeding practices, pointing out that only 17 percent 0-5 children are exclusively breastfed due to poverty and poor access to supplements.

Onabolu blamed the nation’s nutrition challenges despite being an agro-based economy on food deficit (with Nigeria being a net importer), high poverty levels, limited access to improved technologies. “With the current status, there was no guarantee for food and nutrition security in Nigeria,” she maintained.

Stating recommendations for implementation strategy, deputy governor of Kano State, Prof Abubakar Hafiz urged policy makers to engage in multi-sectoral disciplinary teams and advocated the creation of a separate food security and nutrition commission for proper guidance.

Other speakers called for the use of existing structures, being result oriented and action focused as well as fund as ways to sell agriculture as a business by working with organisations such as the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

Presenting the second policy document, “Improving Nutrition Through Enhanced Food Environments”, Prof Thomas noted that food systems are failing to drive improvements in nutrition, as she revealed that 2 billion have micronutrient deficiency, 200 million children are stunted or wasted while additional 2 billion people are overweight or obese (increasing non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease)

She explained that food environments are influenced by policies across the food system, which determines the availability, accessibility, affordability, and desirability of foods to consumers.

“There is no doubt that progress is being made in Nigeria as the stunting figures have come down considerably, but at the same time, there is still high level of stunting in the North East,  and North West.

“We also see that there is quite high level of anaemia, another micro nutrient deficiency, estimated at 49 percent of reproductive age are anaemic. This is a big burden for them and again, it comes down to having access and being able to afford healthy foods. It is important to be positive in the sense that real efforts have been made to enable children to have food and that Nigeria should be proud of that progress,” she said

Thomas, however said “the challenges that remain now and in the future  are formidable, not just for Nigeria, but other middle income and low income countries, which include challenges of  climate change, rising population and urbanisation.

Global Panel, she said, decided to launch its new brief on the food environment because “we think the food environment is a very important area where nutrition can have a big impact. The food environment has a lot of influence on the kinds of food that people eat. When people are in a food environment, the place where they make their food choices, they are very much affected by what is available.”

The don noted that while the average per capita food supply worldwide increased from 2,200 to 2,800 calories/cap/day (from 1960 to 2009), malnutrition is growing in every country, rich and poor, a spike in ultra-processed food products consumption as well as the fact that agricultural commodities are being processed on a journey to retail markets.

She said, “We need to transform our food environment in ways that promote greater diversity, availability, affordability and safety of nutritious foods.

“If we provide a lot of unhealthy high fats energy dense snacks which are quite delicious, clearly, people will want to eat them and that is okay in moderation. But key to the food environment is that we need to be able to use government influence, power of industries and civil societies to make sure consumers also exercise good choices.”

According to the don, actions to shape the food environment for improved diets and nutrition include implementing economic measures, encouraging marketing of high quality diets and restricting promotion of unhealthy foods and marketing of food products to children

These, she said, can be achieved “by applying taxes to reduce unhealthy food consumption, subsidies to increase nutrition-rich foods’ consumption, controls on retail prices and redistributing general revenues to provide targeted income support to nutritionally-vulnerable.”

Also speaking, vice president, Nigeria AgriBusiness Group, Emmanuel Ijewere, said Nigeria was chosen for the launch because of the new thinking in Nigeria as to food production, micro nutrients and the nation’s big population.

He advised that all Nigerians should be careful what they eat “because it is what you eat that makes who you are.” Some foods that may look attractive and taste very good may not necessarily be good for you, he added.