Today is World Food Day. Here, GAIN’s Marti van Liere, Bonnie McClafferty, and Greg S. Garrett provide an insight into why they think the foods that make up our diets are, far too often, inadequate.

The food system is failing nutrition. The way we are producing, storing, transporting, marketing and consuming foods is undermining any advances made in improving health outcomes around the world. The numbers speak for themselves.

Despite our advances in agricultural productivity, a little less than 800 million people still remain hungry. Forty-five percent of all deaths of children under five are linked to undernutrition. Hundreds of millions of people continue to suffer from the absence of micronutrients in their diets — a hidden hunger – which debilitates whole societies. By 2030 global obesity and overweight may sky rocket to 3 billion people. The new reality is that there is no longer a country in the world that does not suffer from some form of malnutrition, and low quality diets are now considered the number one risk factor for human health.

Most of the overnutrition as well as the undernutrition problems in the world can be brought back to the fact that the foods we eat, are either too rich in certain elements — such as saturated fats or sugar — or they are too poor in others, lacking important vitamins or minerals.

These unacceptable statistics are well-known to the medical and public health community.  Our doctors and dieticians recommend healthy foods to lower our cholesterol, or to lose weight and government-led campaigns promote healthy eating habits and dietary diversity.

But is it even possible to choose the healthier option? Are these foods available, and are they affordable to those that need them most?

To ensure that more people have access to and will consume more nutritious diets, we need to not only target the producers of foods, such as the farmers and farm input suppliers, or consumers who are at the receiving end of the food value chain, but we must address the entire food system.

Without a nutrition driven food system, we are in real danger of distributing food products, practices, and aspirations that are nothing short of health hazards.  If we are not careful, strained health systems around the world will now need to add to their responsibility, the burden and treatment of diet related illness brought on by shattered diets and a defective food system.

A food systems approach is needed to address under and over nutrition because sustainable nutritious food production on its own is essential, but not sufficient to solve the global malnutrition. Simply put, more food and higher yields are a long way from the mouth of hungry mothers, adolescent girls, children and infants.

Starting with the consumer and the need to generate demand for more safe and nutritious foods, GAIN – with its alliance of partners – is working hard to unlock obstacles in the systems. We are addressing these with innovative, sustainable solutions in partnership with actors along the nutritious food supply chains from food processors, cold chain warehousing, distributors, wholesalers and retailers, to regulators and policy makers, not forgetting the farmer herself.

According to the World Bank, consumers at the Bottom of the Pyramid, both rural and urban, spend $3.5 trillion on food every year and this is expected to grow. In an increasingly urbanized world, the urban poor and families make choices based on what is available in the market at affordable prices and even poor rural famers often rely on markets to purchase their food.

Some of our projects focus on bringing nutritious foods to markets. For example, the Marketplace for Nutritious Foods is designed as an innovation hub, to support promising business plans of local enterpreneurs that want to increase access to nutritious, safe and affordable foods for low-income consumers. A successful example is the VEGMAN, a company in Mozambique, which has developed a vertically integrated business model that oversees everything from vegetable production to wholesale and retail, and has increased access to a diversity of nutritious vegetables to Mozambican consumers at low prices.

Not only farmers, but also women are at the heart of the food system. In rural Rajasthan, India, women groups have been trained to produce fortified blended foods. These foods are purchased by the State’s social welfare program, which then distributes take home rations to mothers and children. This project is giving tens of thousands of women access to nutritious complementary foods for their babies, aged 6 to 23 months, needed in addition to breastmilk. Currently, similar women groups are being set up in the Indian States of Karnataka and Bihar.

By working together with our partners, GAIN’s programs have led to safer and more nutritious foods available to hundreds of millions of individuals through more sustainable food systems in low- and middle-income countries. Making our diets and food systems more nutritious will in turn lead to better health, educability and productivity for entire communities.

About Greg Garrett, Marti van Liere and Bonnie McClafferty

Greg Garrett is the Director Food Fortification for GAIN and has been working in international health and nutrition for over 15 years. Before joining GAIN, in 2011, he served with various international agencies including Abt Associates, Futures Group and Population Services International. Greg serves on the Boards of the Iodine Global Network and the Food Fortification Initiative. Marti van Liere, Director Maternal Infant and Young Child Nutrition, GAIN, is a public health nutritionist, with a PhD in Human Nutrition from the University of Wageningen, the Netherlands. Her career spans 25 years of experience in maternal and child nutrition, in research, public health, and private sector organisations. Bonnie McClafferty is the Director of Agriculture and Nutrition at GAIN and has more than 20 years’ experience working in the nexus between agricultural and nutrition starting with research and development within the institutes that make up the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).