Globally, agriculture is failing by not delivering sufficient nutritious food to meet the nutritional needs of women, infants and children, especially in developing countries. Today micronutrient malnutrition or hidden hunger afflicts billions of people, resulting in poor health, obesity, increased rates of non-communicable diseases and low worker productivity.
Agriculture is responsible because it has never held nutrition as an explicit objective of its production systems. Agricultural policies, which have promoted cereal led food security goals, have enabled the decline in micronutrient intake and eroded dietary diversity for the poor.
Science led progress in agriculture in the last century yielded technological solutions that raised productivity to provide adequate calories per person. We have developed new cultivars, chemicals ranging from mineral fertilizers to pesticides and synthetic plant hormones. The production paradigm of the last century was essentially the green revolution, an effort for which one of the leaders, the late Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Prize in 1971.
Rachel Carson in her famous book, Silent Spring, showed that indiscriminate use of chemicals and pesticides in modern agriculture was harmful to land, soil, water and living organisms that are critical to maintaining the delicate web of life as we know it. Rachel Carson helped cultivate and energize the sustainability conscience and move modern agriculture beyond the narrow focus warding off starvation.
The monumental failure of our food systems to deliver sufficient nutrition has come into sharp focus. The success of the green revolution must be re-evaluated because hybrid cereals, it magic, has replaced traditional crops, which are higher in iron, zinc and vitamins. It is estimated 26 percent of the world’s children are stunted, 2 billion people suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies and 1.4 billion people are overweight, of whom 500 million are obese.
In the push to deliver calorie security, little attention or thought was given to nutritional value and human health. My view is that the scale of malnutrition, especially in the developing world has created a daunting but not insurmountable challenge for agronomists, nutritionists, healthcare practitioners and policy makers.
Malnutrition in all its guises – under nutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity – imposes high economic and social costs on society at all income levels. The cost to the global economy caused by malnutrition, due to lost productivity and direct health care costs, account for about 5 percent of global GDP, equivalent to US$3.5 trillion per year or twice the annual GDP of all African countries.
Improving nutrition and reducing these costs requires urgent and coordinated action. The production paradigm of the first green revolution must be replaced by a new nutrition focused paradigm. More importantly for the developing world, we must elevate micronutrient malnutrition to a population health and human development question. Here is why. The deficiencies of iron, iodine, vitamin A and zinc not only undermine the immune system, but also can irrevocably retard brain development in the womb.
The causes of malnutrition go beyond agricultural production. They are complex and multifactorial. These factors include inadequate availability of and access to safe, diverse food; inappropriate child feeding and adult dietary choices, lack of access to clean water, sanitation and health care. Moreover, malnutrition encompasses the wider socio-economic, political, cultural, ecological and physical environment. Addressing malnutrition, therefore, requires coordinated integrated action in broader policy domains. Because the necessary interventions cut across the portfolios of several government institutions, high-level political support is required to sustain the necessary coordination across key sectors.
Building research and development linkages among agriculture, nutrition, population health and economic growth is critical to overcoming the adverse effects of past policy failures of the food security paradigm. In the 21st century, a green revolution must deliver more than food security. A 21st century green revolution must be predicated on a food systems paradigm. A food systems paradigm is about sustainable agriculture that meets environmental, food sufficiency and nutrition goals.
Agricultural research and development in the developing world must ensure productivity growth while paying attention to nutrient-rich foods. In a food systems paradigm, traditional and modern supply chains can enhance the availability of a variety of nutritious foods and reduce nutrient waste and losses.