Today is UN’s ‘World Children’s Day and we all want every child to thrive. The global COVID-19 pandemic reminds us, if nothing else, of the power and potential of good childhood nutrition to build human capital potential, improve immunity and prevent infection and illness. In building back better we must ensure that no child is left behind. Articles 6 and 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child reiterate that ‘every new-born has the right to survive and thrive’. The first one thousand days of life is crucial for childhood development but there is a real concern that the COVID-19 pandemic will set us back decades in improving child nutrition in the global south unless urgent action is taken.
Tackling the Double Burden - Need for sustainable and inclusive food systems
Poor nutritional outcomes inhibit children’s ability to exercise their right to survive and thrive in the global south. Today, one in every nine people in the world is hungry, and one in every three is overweight or obese. More and more countries are experiencing the double burden of malnutrition, where undernutrition coexists with overweight, obesity and other diet-related non-communicable diseases. The lack of progress on tackling malnutrition is deeply unfair. Social injustice, gender inequality and other exclusions mean that women and children are worst hit. We have witnessed this during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In India, 35% of all children under five are stunted and 17% of children are wasted. At the same time, 2% of children under five are overweight or obese. India is also seeing increasing evidence of non-communicable diseases among children. One in ten school-age children and adolescents were pre-diabetic with fasting plasma glucose between 100 mg/dl and 126 mg/dl or with glycosylated haemoglobin between 5.7%–6.4%. The growing childhood obesity problem is translating into obesity in adults. Now 21% of women and 19% of men in India are reported as being obese or overweight.
The ‘double burden’ of malnutrition is, therefore, having an immense negative impact on the nutritional status of people in India. The existence of the ‘double burden’ is clear evidence that the current food system is not delivering nutrition outcomes that are needed and, therefore, it needs to be reconfigured to a more sustainable and inclusive one that can contribute to improving children’s first one thousand days.
Biofortification as a means to help address childhood malnutrition
India has been making significant investments for achieving food and nutrition security through major publicly-funded programmes mandated under the National Food Security Act 2013. The target driven POSHAN Abhiyaan or National Nutrition Mission was launched in March 2018. The Mission seeks to bring together government bodies and key sectors of the economy to transform the nutritional landscape in India. In October 2020, the Prime Minister of India announced that 17 biofortified varieties of 8 crops will be introduced into all public-funded programmes. These include CR Dhan 315 rice variety which is high in zinc and HD 3298 wheat variety which is high in iron and protein. Given the wide prevalence of micronutrient malnutrition, in particular, the inclusion of these biofortified crops in publicly-funded food programmes are expected have a significant impact in the short to medium term.
In the longer term, a life cycle approach to nutrition needs to be implemented to achieve ‘zero’ hunger and reduce malnutrition - focusing on children and young girls. Here there is a critical role that climate smart and nutrition sensitive agriculture can play in boosting nutritional levels in the household by encouraging production and consumption of nutrient-rich foods in India and the global south.
Today, on World Children’s Day, we should resolve to give our children a just and safe place to exercise their Right to Survive and Thrive and commit to changing the food system to one that delivers better nutritional outcomes so that each child can realise her or his true potential.
Mr. Basanta Kumar Kar is an international development professional who was conferred with Global Nutrition Leadership Award, 'Hero of the Decade' recognition and the ‘Transform Nutrition Champion' Award
Nafees Meah, Regional Representative for South Asia, International Rice Research Institute(IRRI).