More food not the solution to malnutrition

2 October 2013

Despite two decades of increased agricultural productivity there has not been a corresponding drop in malnutrition rates. Two new multidisciplinary projects at the University of Sydney hope to address this challenge.

"As much as 11 percent of gross national product is estimated to be lost annually in Africa and Asia as a result of malnutrition. The results of undernutrition include not only deaths and illness, with a resulting financial burden on the health system, but slower economic growth and continuing poverty," said Associate Professor Robyn Alders from the Faculty of Veterinary Science, who leads both programs.

"Until relatively recently, we mistakenly connected undernourishment to a lack of food and tried to solve it by producing more food. However, this often meant an increase in the energy content and a decrease in the diversity of nutrients in that food."

The projects bring together academics with backgrounds in health, veterinary science, agriculture and political ecology to combine their expertise in addressing the complexity of food security.

"Political ecology describes how political, economic and social factors interact with environmental issues. Healthy environments are, of course, an essential component of food security. Legislation that improves the efficiency of agricultural disease control or the adequate participation of women in agricultural research are examples of the types of initiatives the University project will review," said Associate Professor Robyn Alders.

A new research node based in the University's Charles Perkins Centrewill use a political ecology lens to suggest solutions to inefficiencies and poor dietary outcomes in the current food systems in Australia, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

As part of that node a five-year multidisciplinary program starting this month will look at the complexities of food and nutrition security in Zambia and Tanzania. The program is funded by the Australian International Food Security Centre.

"The reason we talk about nutritional security as well as food security is because it is not only about how much food people eat, about the calories, but the critical contribution of the nutrients in food," said Associate Professor Mu Li, from Sydney School of Public Health and a researcher in the program.

"'Junk food' is an issue in developed countries where we are overconsuming foods that deliver empty calories. That is also true for developing countries - it is not only quantity of food but the quality that counts."

One of the pernicious impacts of malnutrition is childhood stunting, where children do not fully develop. It currently affects an estimated 165 million children under the age of five. In Zambia and Tanzania, the stunting rates are 45 and 42 percent respectively.

Stunting affects physical and cognitive development in children as well as productivity in adults. A girl who survives stunting becomes a mother of a low-birth weight child in a vicious cycle of poor health outcomes.

"Looking at the bigger picture issues, from the poor design of research to how inefficient distribution networks have contributed to the lack of food security, will be part of this program," said Alders. "With an emphasis on village poultry, which have an essential role in providing food and income to rural households in these countries, we'll look at these and many other factors such as sustainability, the role of women, and policy frameworks."

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Verity Leatherdale: (02) 9351 4312, 0403 067 342 or verity.leatherdale@sydney