Virus has made it even worse, but hunger has stalked SA for decades
The latest Global Nutrition Report shows urgent changes in our food systems are needed
Food security is on everyone’s lips in SA as the Covid-19 pandemic stalks communities and hunger sends thousands to queue for food parcels during the resulting lockdown.
But a new report on global nutrition, published this week, highlights the deep-seated problems that have been with countries such as SA for decades, while showing how Covid-19 and hunger will fuel one another.
“With only five years left to meet the 2025 global nutrition targets, time is running out and the report calls for focused action where the need is greatest to achieve maximum impact,” explains Jane Battersby, an urban food expert at the African Centre for Cities (University of Cape Town), who worked on the independent expert group that produced the report.
The targets were laid out by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2012 and focused on stunting, low birth weight, obesity, reproductive-age women’s anaemia and breastfeeding rates.
On one particularly worrying graph in the report, SA finds itself among many African countries and a small number of Asian countries that carry “overlapping forms of stunting in children under five, anaemia among women of reproductive age and overweight in adult women”.
The national prevalence of under-five stunting is 27.4%, which is greater than the developing country average of 25%.Global Nutrition Report
The Global Nutrition organisation says SA is “on course to meet the global targets for under-five overweight and under-five wasting” by 2025, but is not on target to achieve a 40% reduction in the number of children under five who are stunted, a 50% reduction of anaemia in women of reproductive age or a 30% reduction in low birth weight.
For the fifth target, infant-exclusive breastfeeding, “there is insufficient data to assess South Africa’s progress”.
In 2016, the country’s national prevalence of under-five overweight was 13.3%, a decrease from 17.2% in 2012.
The national prevalence of under-five stunting is 27.4%, which is greater than the developing country average of 25%.
Conversely, SA’s under-five wasting prevalence of 2.5% is less than the developing country average of 8.9%.
In SA, 31.6% of infants under six months old are exclusively breastfed, while in 2015, low birthweight prevalence of 14.2% had decreased slightly from 15% in 2000.
SA’s adult population also faces a malnutrition burden. In women of reproductive age, 25.8% have anaemia and 12.6% of adult women have diabetes, compared with 9.7% of men.
Meanwhile, 39.6% of women and 15.4% of men have obesity.
“Everyone deserves access to healthy, affordable food and quality nutrition care. This access is hindered by deeper inequities that arise from unjust systems and processes that structure everyday living conditions,” says Battersby.
This year’s Global Nutrition Report uses the concept of “nutrition equity” (fair and equal access) to explore how it determines the opportunities and barriers to healthy diets and lives in general.
Derek Headey, an author of the report, says poor diets during pregnancy and in early childhood are a leading cause of undernutrition in early life, which manifest in “compromised physical growth and brain development”.
Singling out Sub-Saharan Africa, he says “the affordability of nutritious food” is a “more serious constraint than previously thought”. SA and its neighbours represent a region where “eggs, fresh milk and fortified infant cereals are prohibitively expensive for the poor”.
These are examples of issues that have negatively affected communities in SA for a long time.
According to the authors, Covid-19 is set to make things worse.
“Though the report was written before the coronavirus pandemic, its emphasis on nutritional wellbeing for all ... has a heightened significance in the face of this new global threat,” say the authors.
The need for “more equitable, resilient and sustainable food and health systems has never been more urgent”, as Covid-19 does “not treat us equally”.
They say undernourished people have weaker immune systems and may be at “greater risk of severe illness due to the virus”.
At the same time, “poor metabolic health, including obesity and diabetes, is strongly linked to worse Covid-19 outcomes, including risk of hospitalisation and death.”