COVID-19 worsens nutritious food access and affordability in APAC region, flags UN report
21 Jan 2021 --- The Asia-Pacific (APAC) region is not on track to achieve the UN’s 2030 targets of ending hunger.
A new report by four specialized UN agencies outlines how nutritious food affordability is crucial to ensure food security for all, particularly for mothers and children.
The economic impact of COVID-19 on the APAC region is threatening to further undermine efforts to improve diets and nutrition of the region’s nearly two billion residents.
The pandemic has affected the region’s poor the worst, who are forced to purchase cheaper and less nutritious foods – which were already occurring prior to the virus’s outbreak.
Ultimately, the report’s authors hope to encourage stakeholders in both the private and the public sectors to support the transformation of the food system and its value chains to bolster accessible healthy diets.
“We hope that more stakeholders will take action to work in a more holistic manner,” the publication’s technical co-coordinator David Dawe tells NutritionInsight.
“Working on only one system without considering the others will in many cases not result in sustainable progress toward improving diets and alleviating malnutrition.”
Dawe is a senior economist and regional strategy and policy advisor for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
A growing concern
The report “Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition 2020: Maternal and Child Diets at the Heart of Improving Nutrition” is jointly published by the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the FAO.
It is the third annual report jointly written by the UN agencies on progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular Goal 2: Zero Hunger. It also discusses the World Health Assembly targets 2030 on nutrition in the APAC region.
As of 2019, over 350 million people in the APAC region are estimated to have been undernourished.
About 74.5 million children under five were estimated to have been stunted (too short for their age) and 31.5 million suffering from wasting (too thin for height).
There is a growing concern that the COVID-19 pandemic will erase many of the gains made in earlier years, although the impact of the pandemic is not yet fully understood.
A UN report from July urged for an additional US$10 billion to prevent millions more people from becoming food insecure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while a Ceres2030 report in October called for over US$330 billion from the donor community.
During a virtual event in December, UN agencies and international governments pooled US$3 billion, called “a small fraction of what is needed over the next five years.”
Multi-targeted efforts needed urgently
Tackling the APAC region’s hunger and malnutrition crisis requires a multifaceted approach.
Governments need to invest in nutrition and food safety in fresh and street food markets to promote healthy diets.
Regulation of sales and marketing of food for consumers, especially children, is important to curb overweight, obesity and related diseases and illness.
The UN agencies note that while nutrition is essential throughout a person’s life, the impact of a poor diet is most severe in the first 1,000 days – from pregnancy to when a child reaches the age of two.
“Young children, especially when they start eating their ‘first foods’ at six months, have high nutritional requirements to grow well and every bite counts,” says the UN.
The agencies called for an integrated systems approach – bringing together food, water and sanitation, health, social protection and education systems – to address underlying factors and achieve healthy diets for all mothers and children.
Three further central areas that need to be addressed are:
- The diversification of food systems.
- Monitoring progress with better availability and timeliness of data.
- Better preparation and build resilience for future disasters and pandemics.
“In the short-term, we hope that people working in different sectors of the government and economy will understand that improving diets and nutrition is complex,” says Dawe.
“It often needs coordinated interventions in food systems, social protection systems, health systems, education systems and water and sanitation systems.”
Bringing the private sector to the table
The private sector is not exempt from responsibility, according to the UN report. “The vast majority of all food is grown, transported, processed, stored and sold by the private sector,” says Dawe.
“There is a wide range of actions that the private sector can undertake to help improve nutrition by ensuring the implementation of good practices and standards across the supply chain,” he notes.
Dawe lists investing in value chains to reduce food losses and waste and the nutrient losses that go along with that. It can also undertake research to develop nutritious foods and market them to consumers.
“Leveraging digital technologies to develop innovations that achieve these aims is especially promising,” he adds.
“In the long-term, we hope that maternal and child diets will improve, and ultimately that malnutrition will be eliminated in line with SDG 2,” Dawe concludes.
By Anni Schleicher
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