Sub-Saharan families are at greater risk of food insecurity than previously estimated, study finds
19 Nov 2019 --- A survey of over 6,000 sub-Saharan family households has revealed that nearly 40 percent experience severely unreliable access to food, while nearly 50 percent have inadequate diversity in their diet. This puts them at risk for micronutrient deficiencies. Nutrition-specific interventions are crucial to guaranteeing sufficient dietary intake, the study concludes. The researchers also found that promoting crop and livestock diversity as well as nutrition education was more beneficial to securing food and nutritious diets than merely increasing household incomes.
“Global chronic hunger could be brought to an end by 2030, with an additional annual investment of US$11 billion, but this will only be possible with highly targeted and well-designed interventions. Our study set out to combine food access indicators with household-farm characteristics to estimate the prevalence of food access deficiencies. We also wanted to understand how those correlate with rural livelihoods across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) throughout the year,” says Dr. Simon Fraval of Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in the Netherlands, the study’s first author.
Households at risk of micronutrient deficiencies tended not to consume eggs, fruits and vitamin A-rich produce when suffering from severe food insecurity, a common phenomenon across farm types. Farm types without a livestock component to their farm also tended to lack dairy products. The study found that the specific micronutrients lacking when below the minimum diet diversity threshold differ between households and are determined by farm type.
An estimated 39 percent of the survey participants experience severely unreliable access to food, while 49 percent have inadequate diversity in their diet. Published in the Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems journal, the study found that households’ vulnerability to food insecurity and micronutrient deficiencies depended on each family’s household composition, agricultural livelihood characteristics and agro-ecological zone. People with household livestock, such as cows, goats, sheep and chickens, were positively associated with low food security.
At the aggregate level, farm types with a substantial livestock component consume more livestock products, namely milk, meat and eggs. Market participation and gross income were also contributing factors both to accessible food and diet diversity.
In this study, the researchers utilized household interviews, geospatial data and mixed-effects regression analysis to achieve its research objectives. It draws upon responses from 7,708 rural land-holding households in SSA. Interviews were conducted through 12 projects operating across eight countries between 2016 and 2018, surveying household members on the severity of food access problems. This ranged from whether participants worried about getting food to whether they went for entire days without eating due to access issues.
In contrast to previous surveys, the study asked participants about the worst month a household had experienced during the past year, as opposed to shorter time frames such as the past 24 hours.
One significant study limitation is that the survey only reflected entire households and was not able to collect data from individuals, particularly differences between children and adults or between men and women. Many other factors, such as education, gender, food preparation and sanitation are likely to play a role, but these were outside of the scope of the study.
The importance of nutritious diets
According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data, undernourished people in SSA represent a third of the 821 million people suffering from chronic hunger globally. However, this data does not accurately portray the real scale of malnutrition and food accessibility, as surveys are often limited by geographical reach and time of year, significantly impacting food availability.
Besides hunger, many more sub-Saharan African suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, which increasingly coexist with obesity and malnutrition. The study warns that these burdens are bound to intensify as both rural and urban populations in the region grow, while diets and rural employment opportunities stagnate.
“Our results suggest that interventions can be better designed by taking into consideration market conditions, land size, farm type and household composition to prioritize the most vulnerable segments of society. It’s also important to note that higher incomes won’t necessarily result in improved food and nutrition outcomes,” explains Dr. Fraval.
Furthermore, Dr. Fravel insists that increased incomes can do the most good when focusing on nutrition education and the availability of diverse foods needed for a balanced diet.
A global problem?
Academics are continuously spotlighting scientific data on how malnutrition and poor diets constitute one of the world’s most difficult problems to tackle. According to a UNICEF report, malnutrition affects at least one in three children under the age of five. Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Nature revealed that people living in tropical coastal areas suffering from malnutrition could improve their health if they were able to incorporate just a fraction of the fish caught nearby into their diets. The World Health Organization (WHO) also advocated in a commissioned report for the inclusion of iron and folic acid supplements as part of antenatal care, as health services must integrate a stronger focus on ensuring optimum nutrition at each life stage.
These reports touch upon several different branches of research within the malnutrition category, which all goes to show that malnutrition is a multisectoral problem. Given the gravity of this dilemma, tackling malnutrition requires versatile action both in the public and the private sector. Indeed, the FAO goes as far as calling malnutrition the “greatest global challenge.”
Edited by Anni Schleicher
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