World Health Day serves as an important occasion to recognize the achievements and challenges in the global health community. While health emergencies such as Ebola and polio have taken over the headlines, we must not forget the critical linkages that food and nutrition have with health and other development issues. This year’s World Health Day highlights the importance of food safety -- which directly impacts both food security and the global health agenda.
Safe and nutritious food is a prerequisite for a healthy life -- not only for basic human survival, but also for ensuring strong digestive, immune, cognitive, and other health functions. Food and water-borne diseases kill 2.2 million people annually -- 1.9 million of them children. We know that the consumption of unsafe food has the potential to cause about 200 different types of disease. Disease and malnutrition perpetuate each other in a vicious cycle that most often affects children and the elderly. Food safety is a vital, but often overlooked, component of the food security and nutrition conversation. On this World Health Day, it is worth highlighting two critical points at the nexus of food safety and food security: nutrition and food loss and waste.
Stunting is a form of malnutrition where a child’s body and brain development are harmed -- often irreversibly -- by under-nutrition. There are approximately 162 million children under the age of five who are stunted around the world. Stunting can occur for a variety of reasons, but poor sanitation and food safety practices are key drivers -- in fact, in some countries these are more critical problems than a lack of food. For example, diarrhea, which is often caused by lack of clean water, improper hand washing and improper food preparation, contributes significantly to malnutrition. While children may be consuming enough calories and nutrients to be healthy, their bodies are unable to retain viable nutrients due to chronic diarrhea. The World Health Organization estimates that 50 percent of malnutrition cases can be linked to repeated diarrhea or intestinal worms from unsafe drinking water, or poor sanitation and hygiene.
Stunting has long-term effects on individuals and economies. Stunting increases the chances of diminished cognitive abilities, incomplete physical development, poor health, repeated bouts of infectious disease, and non-communicable disease later in life. The World Bank estimates that stunted children earn 20 percent less as adults compared to non-stunted individuals. This lost economic output can reduce a country’s GDP by up to 3 percent -- creating a major obstacle to poverty reduction and economic growth for millions of families around the world.
Food waste and its effects on malnutrition and food safety are also critical to address. By 2050, the world will have 9 billion people to feed. This will require a 60 percent increase in food production on land and in oceans that are already strained. For those who are food insecure, rising prices and greater demand for food will only increase food security challenges. Alarmingly, about one third of all food in the world produced for human consumption is lost after being harvested. Loss occurs because of poor storage, transportation, pests, lack of available markets and general waste. In developing countries, poorer communities, especially smallholder farmers, don’t have access to the technology and energy that is essential to keep food safe. This results in potentially un-safe food being consumed out of necessity.
We are losing enough food in this way that saving just half of it would nourish a billion people per year. Evidence shows that loss of crops after harvest is greatest in countries where the calories are needed most. These risks can be mitigated with increased attention to curbing post-harvest loss through better transportation, storage, education and market reliability.
Better food safety means better nutrition, and less waste. In turn, better nutrition and more efficient food systems pay strong, lifelong dividends for health, productivity, and economic growth. The United States is working to address both stunting and post-harvest loss through comprehensive strategies within President Obama’s signature food security initiative -- Feed the Future. Significant progress has been made, but there is still work to be done. This World Health Day, let’s commit to understanding and acting on the linkages between food safety and health, for the sake of our children and our communities.
About the Authors: Julia Duncan and Elizabeth Buckingham serve in the Secretary of State's Office of Global Food Security and Joshua Glasser serves in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs' Office of International Health & Biodefense.