It was a honor for me to speak virtually at the session “Climate & Nutrition: we can’t have one without the other” organised by the Food and Land Use Coalition and the Global Alliance for improved nutrition during the COP27.
I spoke on the growing interdependence between climate change and global nutrition.
As a nutrition scientist, I highlighted the urgency of launching a new era of cooperation. Climate experts, food experts and nutrition experts must act together in new and more impactful ways. The time has now come to combine our collective strengths and build a new path that can save our planet AND nourish our most vulnerable.
Identifying new synergies between climate change and nutrition will also be an important part of the next Micronutrient Forum Global Conference on “Nutrition for Resilience” – a hybrid conference in October next year, online and in the Hague. I hope you will join us.
Today, there is growing recognition that climate change and malnutrition are two sides of the same coin.
What do I mean by this?
Well, I have five points:
- First: Malnutrition in all its forms: overweight, undernutrition and vitamin and mineral or micronutrient – deficiencies is the biggest and still growing public health problem affecting all countries of the world, and especially women and young children in low and middle income countries.
Today, 149 million children are stunted, chronically malnourished, 45 million wasted and 39 million overweight. New findings published in Lancet Global Health last month indicated that the prevalence of micronutrient deficiency is much higher than we thought: more than half of the world’s children and two-third of the women are deficient in micronutrients. And since 2020 the world has faced an accumulation of crises further threatening global food and nutrition security simply because people can no longer afford healthy diets with sufficient nutritious foods rich in micronutrients.
Malnutrition leads to irreversible and life long implications for health, well-being and development of individuals, communities and societies as a whole today and in the future. Because malnutrition during pregnancy and in early life leads to impaired brain development leading to poorer school performance and lower adult economic productivity.
Second: What we eat impacts the climate and climate change impacts what we eat.
The disruptions and emergencies that climate change will bring are known to threaten nutrition in a whole range of ways. Extreme weather events reduce the yields of staples and nutrient-rich foods. For a number of crops, elevated CO2 levels have been shown to reduce the micronutrient content, resulting in sometimes up to 30% lower levels of these critical nutrients in these crops. And extreme weather is escalating the risk of waterborne infectious diseases, impacting health and nutrition of vulnerable women and children.
Elevated CO2 could thus cause an additional 175 million people to be zinc deficient and over 1 billion women and children could lose much of their dietary iron intake, putting them at greater risk of anemia and other diseases.
- Third: Despite the grim context — there is hope and a way forward.
We know we must work together as climate and nutrition experts to align and synergize actions and integrated solutions that mitigate impacts on climate and on all forms of malnutrition: the so-called triple duty actions and these need to be context specific.
Animal-source foods for instance may play an especially important role in meeting the nutritional needs of pregnant women and young children in vulnerable conditions. Yet industrial meat production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and there is wide agreement that the average high rate of red meat consumption in high-income countries should be reduced for both health and environmental benefits. We must transform the current failing food systems into sustainable food systems with equal access to affordable healthy foods including the promotion of breastfeeding.
This won’t be easy, but we can start with what we know: Invest more in developing climate resilient, nutrient-dense crops, including traditional crops; Strengthen food fortification to deliver these nutrients in a more sustainable way; and ensure access to nutritious foods through social protection and humanitarian programs that include supplements, food rations, or vouchers.
- Fourth: We need data so that we can link climate projections to projections of nutrition vulnerability to identify those at most risk.
We need to be able to predict, monitor and evaluate the impact of interventions across food and health systems on both nutrition as well as climate.
- Last, and most important: We can’t afford to lose momentum and the hope that this COP27 brings us. Those that contribute the least to climate change, suffer the most from the consequences including malnutrition. We have an ethical obligation to protect the most vulnerable from the toxic combination of climate change and malnutrition.
Saskia Osendarp, PhD, Executive Director of the Micronutrient Forum
November 8, 2022