Exploring complexity: Policy options for nutritious, affordable and sustainable diets for all

Posted on October 24, 2022

On 13 October 2022, the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) Hub for SDG 2: Zero Hunger, hosted a panel discussion in celebration of World Food Day, celebrated annually on 16 October. The panel discussion, Exploring complexity: Policy options for nutritious, affordable and sustainable diets for all, is a side event of the FAO Science and Innovation Forum.

The panel discussion was opened by Omar Hernández, Public Information Officer and Program Manager of the United Nations Academic Impact initiative. Hernández pointed out that while many think of SDG2: Zero Hunger as an isolated goal, this is not correct. All of the challenges that the Sustainable Development Goals target are interlinked with hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition. Poverty, inequality, lack of education, and health care all have an impact on SDG 2. This presents many complexities in achieving zero hunger.

The right to food is a fundamental right of all people. Unfortunately, there are still millions of people who are malnourished, and many more who remain food insecure. According to the SOFI 2022 report, close to 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020, and the situation is likely to worsen due to the on-going war in Ukraine. The theme for the 2022 World Food Day is “Leave no one behind”, which calls for global action to address issues of poverty, hunger, and inequality. This is significantly relevant to the discussion on food security and nutrition because hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition usually affect the most vulnerable people, “depriving children of the potential to develop, to advance and to escape poverty” as stated by Prof Sheryl Hendriks.

Dr Maximo Torero, the chief economist at the FAO, says that besides the impact of war and conflict, the significant hunger situation is also affected by the climate variability and extremes that we have seen across the globe. Additionally, many countries have still not recovered from the economic losses experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The uncertainties and many risks that are seen across the world are also impacting the agriculture sector.

Dr Torero explains that agriculture forms part of a complex food system. The agricultural sector is already complex in itself, with multiple influences on inputs, and many factors that impact the output. However, the last three years have shown the world just how complicated it can be. A virus can shut down the economy, close roads, and ports, and halt trade. The production of natural gas impacts the production of nitrogen, which will impact the production of fertilizers and food production. Floods can cause power outages, which can shut down factories that process food, and keep food refrigerated. There are many examples that illustrate how complex the system is.

According to Dr Torero, we need to learn from the past and avoid the mistakes of previous crises, such as expensive subsidies for fertilizers and fuel that perpetuate resource-intensive and unsustainable production systems. We need to build resilience by ensuring diversity in agrifood systems. We need to make sure that we do not forget about processing and marketing when we transform the food system. We need to accelerate the process of trade.

Prof Sheryl Hendriks, lead of the UNAI Hub for SDG 2, echoes the impact that current global challenges have on food security and nutrition. She says that the proportion of hungry and malnourished people in the world is increasing and the prospects for the future do not look good. Prof Hendriks argues that we require local actions beyond single disciplines. We need a comprehensive perspective in guiding our actions and change. The complexity of challenges is evident, and with less than a decade left to achieve the SDGs, we need to take urgent action. Universities and researchers such as those participating in the discussion, play a crucial role in sharing information and ensuring scientific contributions to decisions.

Prof Padmini Murthy, of the New York Medical Collge and lead of the UNAI hub for SDG 3, points out that malnutrition is prevalent across the world with approximately 1.9 billion adults who are overweight and obese. People eat a lot of unhealthy food because it is cheaper, and this contributes significantly to obesity. Obesity is just one of the many types of malnutrition that we see in the world. Prof Murthy explains that protein-energy malnutrition, for example, is also a serious issue, and has had a huge impact on children in the last few years. Other issues such as COVID-19 have devasted people’s health. However, there is a vaccine for COVID-19, but not for food insecurity. The only solution to malnutrition is access to healthy diets.

Prof Murthy says that the New York Medical College (NYMC) has been actively improving food security and nutrition for its community. The NYMC has a pollinator garden filled with native plants that are encouraging bee pollination. Students are also encouraged to eat healthy food by making use of green gardens and farmer's markets. Marayam Albarakati, a student at NYMC says that their university is providing food pantries to students, but also encourages those who cannot afford food to register for the programs that provide healthy food. She argues that it is essential for students to have healthy diets because it contributes to good mental and physical health.

Dr Jessica Jin, of De Montfort University, representing the UNAI hub for SDG 16, elaborated further on the causes of food insecurity, which she argues are civil conflict, climate change, and environmental factors. Dr Jin says that all three affect the food system and the supply chain of food production and consumption. They can impact the cost of food, and increasing costs directly impact nutrition. In developing countries, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa, people struggle more to access affordable diets and struggle more with malnutrition. This limits their development which in turn, limits the potential for economic growth.

Dr Annemieke Farenhorst, Associate Professor at the University of Manitoba and lead of the UNAI hub for SDG 6, argues that even in developed countries such as Canada, there are people left behind. In Canada specifically, Indigenous peoples are significantly impacted by food insecurity. Sarah Johnson, a student at the University of Manitoba, points out that in remote areas such as those in Northern Canada, fresh food is not easily accessible because it cannot be grown easily and needs to be transported long distances. This pushes up the costs of healthy food, which then negatively impacts food security and nutrition.

The interlinkages between the different SDGs need to be accounted for in the action we take to achieve the 17 goals. All the challenges that the SDGs aim to address play a role in a very complicated system, and have been present in our societies for many years. This panel discussion shows us that while achieving SDG 2: Zero Hunger is essential for development, it will not be possible without the achievement of SDGs 3, 6, or 16. There are many policy options to consider, with many possible outcomes. Often, the solution to one problem can further harm another problem. The solutions are not easily achieved, but we need to start taking action. As Dr Wegayehu Fitawek concluded, “We need to work together, generating knowledge, and working towards the achievement of all the SDGs.”

Ultimately, all the SDGs matter if we hope to “Leave no one behind”.

- Author Andrea du Toit
Published by Andrea du Toit

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2023. All rights reserved.

COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal

To contact the University during the COVID-19 lockdown, please send an email to [email protected]

Click here for frequently asked questions for first year UP students

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences