Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have conducted a study showing that a different approach is needed to assess the nutrient sufficiency of the global food system if the targets of the United Nation’s second Sustainable Development Goal are going to be met.
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The aim of the Sustainable Development Goal is to end all forms of malnutrition by the end of 2030.
The study is the first to map the supply of protein, fat, energy, essential amino acids and micronutrients at a global level and pinpoint where nutrients are deficient.
Hannah Ritchie and colleagues showed that although nutrients are produced in excess of what is required for the population worldwide, the food supply chain is inefficient and leaves many people deficient of nutrients.
The study flags up two main problems that arise with the delivery of a balanced food system.
The first one, says Ritchie, is that food security is measured in terms of calories (energy), while micronutrient malnutrition affects more than 2 billion people worldwide.
The second problem is that food is reported on in tonnes or kilograms, which is difficult to interpret in terms of how many people this can feed.
We wanted, for the first time, to assess the full food system in useful metrics – average nutrients per person – across all the nutrients that are essential to good health."
Hannah Ritchie, Study Author
Using food balance and nutrient composition datasheets from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the researchers measured calories, protein, fat, amino acids, and micronutrients across the entire supply chain, from “field-to fork.”
FAO regional waste data were used to assess food and nutrient losses and calculate the average loss per person per day.
The metrics were compared to average nutritional requirements to see whether they would be sufficient by time food arrives in households.
As reported in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, the study found that not just calories, but all nutrients, exceeded the requirements.
Some nutrients were up to five times the average requirement, reports Ritchie.
However, food wastage and nutrient losses in the supply chain mean that by time certain nutrients reach the household, they are insufficient.
Richie says: "With large inequalities in food availability, we know that many people will be deficient in several essential nutrients."
Co-author David Reay says the work highlights the difficulties in supplying a balanced food system and the need for a holistic approach to meeting food targets:
With population growth, intensifying climate change impacts and rapidly changing diets, the need for evidence-based, holistic assessments of our food system have never been more urgent," he concludes.
David Reay, Co-author