“Food quality could be more problematic than food quantity for sub-Saharan countries over the coming decades”

A summary of my PhD findings, by Charlotte Hall

Providing the global population with sufficient and nutritious food, while also trying to minimise and reverse damage to the natural environment, is a major societal challenge. Nowhere is this challenge greater than in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where one in four people are currently undernourished, and micronutrient deficiencies are widespread. The results of my PhD findings suggest that food supply quality (in terms of micronutrient provision) could be more problematic over the coming decades than food supply quantity (in terms of dietary energy provision) in SSA, using Malawi as a case study. Using a novel modelling framework (FEEDME), supplies of energy, protein, iron, zinc and vitamin A were assessed under a range of future climatic and socio-economic scenarios. In all future scenarios, supplies of energy and protein were adequate, whereas supplies of the three micronutrients were inadequate to meet population-level requirements (with the exception of zinc in a ‘best-case’ future scenario) (see Figure 1). These results are novel as the majority of studies to date have focused on impacts on yields of staple crops and the resulting impact on undernourishment prevalence. The suggestion that nutrient supply may be more problematic in the future than energy supply highlights the need to move beyond the traditional focus on the production of staple crops towards a more holistic view of nutrition security whereby dietary diversity and consumption of micronutrient-dense foods are promoted. Indeed, until very recently, Malawian households were considered to be food secure if they had adequate access to maize with little to no emphasis on dietary diversity. This situation is reflected in (and exacerbated by) national development agendas whereby food security is a key priority for agricultural policies, but nutritional issues (such as stunting and wasting) are considered a health issue. This lack of nutritional consideration within agricultural systems can be considered one of the main causes of food insecurity and malnutrition in today’s society. It is essential that agricultural and nutrition sectors work together in order to form food security strategies that tackle not only undernourishment, but micronutrient deficiencies and their associated health consequences.

In an attempt to explore solutions and adaptation options for Malawi, my PhD research also examined the linkages between land use and dietary quality. The results showed a positive relationship between households located in more forested areas and vitamin A adequacy. Indeed, households who reported consuming wild foods had a 54% higher intake of vitamin A than households who did not consume these foods (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12571-019-00923-0). These results are supportive of a wider literature which shows forests can have a multitude of benefits for human health. The implications of these results are strongly linked to the earlier findings surrounding dietary quality, as the focus on increasing yields of staple crops via agricultural expansion has often come at the expense of natural landscapes such as forests. Given the growing body of research which shows the importance of forests for nutrition in many low- and middle- income countries, careful consideration must be given to the types of food production systems we adopt in the future. Forest conservation and restoration is likely to not only be critical for ensuring nutrition security for some of the world’s poorest people, but also for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, which are all key outcomes of the global Sustainable Development Goals.

Figure 1. Micronutrient supply in all future scenarios was inadequate to meet population-level requirements, except for zinc in a “best-case” scenario (SSP1/RCP 4.5).