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World’s biggest socio-economic risk: Ignoring nutrition’s role in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals

(June 04, 2022)

World Nutrition Day 2022: Being poor limits the accessibility to enough food and due to undernutrition, children and adults cannot attain good health and holistic wellbeing.

Even though there are multiple Government programmes for fighting malnutrition, we as a nation need to move closer to the nutrition goals(Getty Images)

World Nutrition Day 2022: Seven years ago, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the UN and became the most widely recognized blueprint for a sustainable future. They remain a mirror to some of the key global challenges we face – poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, hunger, and poor health. With the pandemic having radically changed our economies and societies, it’s important to note where we were, where we are now and where we could be while working towards the realisation of the SDGs – especially of 1, 2 and 3 that deal with abolishing poverty, hunger and gaining good health respectively. The SDGs will continue to be a call for the world to come together to find urgent solutions to pressing problems.

If the past few years have been an indicator of times to come, we see that the continuous investment in good nutrition will help the world to realize every single UN SDG. Although nutrition primarily contributes to SDG 2 which corresponds to the ambition to ‘End hunger, achieve food security, improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’ it also indirectly impacts 12 of the 17 SDGs – which include SDGs 1 and 3. Being poor limits the accessibility to enough food and due to undernutrition, children and adults cannot attain good health and holistic wellbeing. Well-nourished children become healthy adults, that can grow, learn and participate better in their communities and react more resiliently to a crisis. According to NITI Aayog, which measures the country’s progress on SDG targets, only Kerala and Chandigarh are performing well on SDG 2.

Nutrition is both a maker and a marker of development. Improved nutrition is the platform for progress in health, education, employment, empowerment of women and the reduction of poverty and inequality, and can lay the foundation for peaceful, secure and stable societies, Ban Ki-moon, 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations has said.

Even though there are multiple Government programmes for fighting malnutrition, we as a nation need to move closer to the nutrition goals. The first phase of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5, which was conducted in 17 states and five Union Territories (UTs) in 2019, revealed much scope for improvement in terms of performance in all the parameters related to malnutrition. In March 2021, the Ministry of Women and Child Development said that the country had a million children who needed to be brought out from Severe Acute Malnutrition.

Therefore, our key lookout, on a national scale should be to improve nutrition and promote balanced diets if we are to realize the first three UN SDGs at least.

One of the ways that this can be done is by encouraging farmers to diversify their production, as it rewards farmers and local communities with improved nutrition. Diversification of agricultural production also keeps farmers engaged through different periods in the year, which reduces unemployment and nutrition gaps. We are blessed to live in a country in which this diversification is possible, with various soil qualities and knowledge about various food groups that the population is familiar with. However, this diversification cannot only have a profit motive but should be farmer-first. Farmers have long been disillusioned by the inability to grow what they want and what will feed their families and their communities well. Growing a non-indigenous variety of berries, for example, will not have the nutritional effect that wood-apple or guava could have, which are extremely nutrient-dense.

Locally grown crops can thus help to meet the nutrient and micronutrient requirements of our country. More nutritious than wheat are jowar, bajra, kodu, kutki, and maize which are powerhouses of micronutrients.

Similarly, there are thousands of green leafy vegetables across India that are rich sources of essential nutrients like iron, calcium, and potassium with the potential to address the ‘hidden hunger.’ Being vocal for local is the need of the hour. However, these local crops need to also be utilized properly and made available at every level of society – there needs to be equity in crop distribution, for an equitable intake of nutrition. As long as people have access to food, there is inherent knowledge regarding storing the food for lean periods and distribution of this food through anganwadis, etc to the neediest.

Simple yet innovative things like the promotion of kitchen gardens among lactating and young mothers have shown tremendous impact across India. It not only helps save cost but also ensures the availability of seasonal vegetables in the households, helping children and women improve their nutritional intake. The endeavour can be innovative, localized and practical so that it sustains.

According to the UN Land Report released in April 2022, food systems – a blanket term to describe the way humans produce, process, transport and consume food – are the main reasons when it comes to land degradation. They account for 80 per cent of deforestation, 29 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and the leading share of biodiversity loss. Therefore, a sustainable way that better nutrition can be realized is by improving soil health and its restoration in barren areas. Healthy soil is vital for the growth of healthy food and healthy nutrition levels.

However, the concept that agriculture can serve food security in a siloed manner is untrue. Nutrition security needs to be tackled with a science–society–policy approach. The transformation of food security systems today depends on equally nourishing all people and looking at sustainable, eco-friendly ways of doing so. There needs to be better and scientific awareness about the consumption of foods such as refined wheat noodles and many biscuits that are extremely nutrition-poor, detrimental to the nutritional wellbeing of children and youth of the country.

Considering the universal urgency to ensure the availability of proper nutrition, especially for children and women, it is time to think globally and act locally.

(Santanu Mishra is Co-founder & Executive Trustee of Smile Foundation, and Dr Amita Singh, is an eminent nutritionist and currently working as a consultant at National Hospital, Bhopal)

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