What’s the difference between malnutrition and undernutrition, and why is it important?
The terms ‘malnutrition’ and ‘undernutrition’ are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous.
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Ahead of the Nutrition for Growth summit, we sat down with Rachel, Concern’s Senior Public Affairs and Campaigns Officer, to find out more about the event and why it’s more important this year than ever before.
Nutrition for Growth (N4G) is an international summit where governments, non-governmental organisations and businesses all make commitments to tackle global malnutrition.
The first summit, hosted by the UK in 2013, followed a hunger summit along the side-lines of the 2012 Olympics in the UK, and raised an incredible $17 billion, boosting worldwide efforts to reduce malnutrition. Since the first summit, it was agreed to organise an N4G summit every four years to coincide with the Olympics schedule. The next one is being hosted by Japan this December.
Since the first N4G summit in 2013, there has been a significant reduction in child stunting, with 12 million fewer stunted children today.
But due to worsening conflict in many countries, climate change and more frequent shocks, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we’re now seeing malnutrition on the rise again. It’s almost unbelievable that, today, 45% of all deaths of children under 5 are still linked to undernourishment. These deaths are entirely preventable, and it’s an injustice that the world isn’t doing more to stop these deaths.
Good nutrition is one of the most basic human needs. It saves lives, and helps individuals to lead healthier lives. Healthier people are not only more likely to earn better livings; they are also better equipped to be resilient to all kinds of shocks. That’s why good nutrition is so closely linked to ending extreme poverty. That’s why we’re doing everything we can to make sure the government takes critical action at this year’s summit, especially after being one of the pioneers of the Nutrition for Growth agenda.
Last year, the N4G summit was postponed due to the pandemic. This may not seem like a big deal, but the UK’s funding commitments to nutrition ran out at the end of 2020 and have not been renewed in 2021. Since then, the UK government has reduced its annual aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income. Funding to nutrition programmes has been disproportionately affected by this devastating decision, plummeting by 70% in a matter of months.
Behind these figures are real people living in some of the world’s poorest countries. They now risk losing access to life-saving therapeutic food for nutrition services - particularly for severely malnourished children – as well as reduced health screenings and reduced learning at school. The impact of this will see a massive increase in the number of people falling ill frequently, dying or being severely impacted by malnutrition. It’s cutting a lifeline that will be felt for decades to come.
With the N4G summit now taking place, we need the UK government to turn the situation around and re-commit to tackling global malnutrition.
We’re campaigning for two key things:
In 2015, countries including the UK committed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals that we would strive to meet by 2030. Goal 2 was Zero Hunger.
This goal is not just about tackling hunger, which is about having enough food - it’s also about making sure people have the right type of food through a balanced and diverse diet, and in the right amounts. This will ensure that they are physically and mentally healthier, more resilient and more productive.
Although we’re still a long way from achieving this goal - and the pandemic is driving us even further off track - progress is possible. The Nutrition for Growth summit is an opportunity to draw attention to malnutrition and help galvanise resources and political attention to a problem that we know the solutions to, and are capable of making more progress on.
The UK government has been saying some good things about tackling malnutrition, such as the mention of their intention to address it at the G7 leaders’ Summit, but these sentiments haven’t yet been backed up by actions. In fact, the aid cuts to nutrition programmes completely undermine them. What we really need is for the decision-makers to commit some resources to this important work.
The government also needs to get smarter in how it approaches issues like malnutrition. Too often, political will only comes when the situation is really bad – for example, when famine is declared. But, prevention efforts need to be increased before the problem reaches this scale. Greater attention needs to go into strengthening local and national health systems in the world’s poorest countries, incorporating nutrition into core health services and changing food systems to help vulnerable people better access nutritious food. These are necessary long-term changes. In the short term, we absolutely must continue to respond where we see the greatest need.
Conditions resulting from poor nutrition are extremely serious and a major cause of preventable deaths in children. Even for those who survive, malnutrition can leave a lasting impact. 149 million children are currently stunted, or too short for their age, due to poor nutrition. This will affect their physical and mental development, as well as their long-term health.
But malnutrition is so much more than not having enough to eat. For example, I used to think that micronutrient deficiency meant brittle nails or lacklustre hair. Actually, it can lead to anaemia - one of the leading causes of complications and even death in pregnancy - while vitamin A deficiency is really common in refugee children, because they struggle to access fresh produce. Untreated, it can cause blindness and even death.
It’s incredibly frustrating to know that these conditions are easily treated (and prevented) with very little funding. Take vitamin A supplements - a capsule costs just $0.03 but, for a child receiving this every 4-6 months, it can be life-saving. A little really does go a long way when it comes to funding nutrition.
Because N4G has been postponed, those who have been campaigning with Concern ahead of it probably feel they’ve doing so for a very long time – but stay with us! Now is actually the most critical time to push the UK to play its part in turning the tide on malnutrition. Decisions are being made by ministers as you read this. They are deciding the fate of millions - whether they’ll commit to helping 50 million malnourished people or 10 million over the next five years.
I’ll be writing to our campaigners in the next few weeks with some actions they can take. And if you’re not on our mailing list, keep an eye on Concern’s Twitter and Facebook pages to see how you can get involved.
Find out more about the Nutrition for Growth summit here, and join us to call for the UK to continue its vital commitments to nutrition programmes.