Ending malnutrition: what role for the private sector?

By Gian Marco Grindatto

With the world off track to meet Sustainable Development Goal 2, Global Health Advocates have published a new report exploring the role of private sector innovation and funding for agriculture and nutrition to deliver a nutritious, sustainable food future for all.

After over a decade of decline, the number of people suffering from hunger is on the rise again – reaching 815 million in 2016. Still, the world produces enough food to feed its current population. This is a sign that the current food system is not fit to respond to the global challenge of hunger and malnutrition.

World leaders have committed to ending hunger and malnutrition as part of the universally agreed Agenda 2030. Acknowledging that development aid resources alone were never going to be enough to finance the Sustainable Development Goals, innovative financing tools are emerging out of the political discussion as alternate ways to finance sustainable development. Leveraging private sector investments is often identified by donor countries as one of the most promising tool – often referred to as a “silver bullet”. The European Union for instance, with the launch of its External Investment Plan, will be mobilising the private sector with the goal of boosting investments in sustainable development and agriculture.

However, the role of private sector in financing development is raising key questions: what impact do private investments have on improving the livelihoods of people living in poverty? Can private sector investments show a clear development added value? Which private actors are best placed to ensure positive contributions to sustainable development?

Global Health Advocates’ new report “Ending malnutrition: what role for the private sector” provides some food for thoughts around these questions. The report analyses specifically the role of the private sector and its impact on the causes of malnutrition, acknowledging that the impact of different private sector actors should surely be differentiated and measured.

Private sector/Malnutrition report

Private Sector & Nutrition

In particular, private companies are getting increasingly engaged in interventions to treat malnutrition and can have varying impacts on its immediate causes. In some cases, such as in the production of ready-to-use therapeutic food to treat children with acute malnutrition, companies can play a key role in ensuring the provision of high quality, effective and affordable products. In other cases, private companies are putting children’s lives at risk when illegally marketing baby milk formula, undermining the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding, one of the best natural ways to prevent malnutrition. In addition, private companies are massively investing in interventions to fight micronutrient deficiencies through food fortification and biofortification programmes. We consider these interventions to be “techno fixes” to the complex challenge of malnutrition, bringing only short-term benefit if not properly integrated into food system strategies for the delivery of healthy and diversified diets.

However, such initiatives to respond to the immediate causes of malnutrition cannot be the only answer. Even if fully scaled-up, they could reduce chronic malnutrition only by 20.3%. As a consequence, strong efforts are needed not only to treat malnutrition, but also to prevent it by implementing policies that can guarantee universal access to diverse, safe, affordable and nutritious diets, ensuring the universal right to food.

Nutrition interventions

Private Sector & Agriculture

Interventions in agriculture can play a crucial role in ensuring food systems are working effectively for nutrition. However, the widespread industrial model of agriculture is failing to ensure universal access to diversified and nutritious diets. Based on intensive monocropping, three crops alone (maize, rice and wheat) are currently supplying more than half of the calories people get from food. In addition, this model of agriculture is also having negative impacts on the environment and on people’s health.

AG model

Diversified models of agroecology are emerging as a promising alternative: they have the potential to deliver positive nutrition outcomes, at the same time empowering small farmers, respecting the environment and building resilience. Small farmers, together with cooperatives and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), are the most legitimate and relevant private sector actors with a key role to play in shifting towards diversified models of agroecology.

If we are to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030, strong efforts to prevent malnutrition and tackle its root causes are crucial. We need to ensure that investments in agriculture shift away from the industrial model towards a more sustainable diversified agroecological model, targeting and empowering small farmers, as they are the main drivers of change towards delivering sustainable and positive nutrition outcomes.

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