Around 3 billion people across the world cannot afford a healthy diet and 1.9 billion of them are in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a recent United Nations agencies report. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and surging prices of fruits, vegetables and dairy products have aggravated the crisis for many, the report published on January 20, 2021 said.
The latest estimate is that nearly 688 million people globally are undernourished, more than half of them in Asia. The largest share is in South Asian countries like Afghanistan, where four in 10 people are malnourished. The report is mostly based on data up to 2019, before the pandemic struck. But it also estimates that an additional 140 million people were likely to have fallen into extreme poverty in 2020 due to the impact of virus outbreaks and lockdowns.
By the end of last year, some 265 million were estimated to be facing acute food insecurity. A key factor is food affordability, a problem in wealthy nations like Japan as well as impoverished places like East Timor and Papua New Guinea, said the report issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organisation.
As a result, progress is also slowing on improving nutrition, a key target for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As of 2019, over 350 million people in the region are estimated to have been undernourished, with an about 74.5 million children under five stunted (too short for their age) and 31.5 million suffering from wasting (too thin for height).
The UN agencies went on to note that while nutrition is vitally important throughout a person’s life, the impact of a poor diet is most severe in the first 1,000 days, from pregnancy to when a child reaches the age of two. “Young children, especially when they start eating their ‘first foods’ at six months, have high nutritional requirements to grow well and every bite counts,” they said.
The report also highlighted the changing face of malnutrition with highly processed and inexpensive foods readily available throughout Asia and the Pacific. Often packed with sugar and unhealthy fats, such food items lack the vitamins and minerals required for growth and development and also increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The report urged governments for a transformation of food systems in Asia and the Pacific region and to invest more in nutrition and food safety to promote healthy diets, as well as regulate sales and marketing of food for consumers, especially children. It also highlighted the need for action within the private sector, given the sector’s important role in the food system and its value chains for achieving healthy diets.