02/12/2014 12:25 GMT | Updated 01/02/2015 05:59 GMT

It's Time to Focus on Nutrition

When I was a child, I loved my food - and I still do. It was always such a pleasure to tuck into a loaf of fresh white bread, still warm from the baker, our family's Sunday lunchtime treat. With the benefit of a few decades of hindsight, I'm clear that it was my own love of food that made it seem such an injustice that so many other children around the world didn't have food and went hungry, while I had plenty.

This situation still strikes me as particularly unfair.

While we've absolutely made some big strides in addressing nutrition and food security, it sometimes feels like not a lot has changed since I was a child. It is sadly true that one of the biggest and most neglected challenges facing the global community is still malnutrition, specifically undernutrition. It affects more people than any single disease and is an underlying cause of nearly half of all child deaths. In the global fight to end suffering and reduce poverty, tackling undernutrition will have a significant and lasting impact.

Currently less than 1% of development assistance goes towards tackling malnutrition and insufficient attention is given to the issue in the global arena. This needs to change and the Global Nutrition Report, launched today in the UK, is a significant first step.

The UK has been a vital leader in the field of nutrition. The Global Nutrition Report is an outcome of the Nutrition for Growth Summit held in London last year. Written by an independent expert group, the report provides profiles on nutrition for each country that is a member of the United Nations covering all aspects of malnutrition from undernutrition to obesity.

What it tells us is fascinating.

Multiple burdens of malnutrition - both under and overnutrition - are becoming the new reality. Over two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, and 805 million people, nearly one in nine, suffer from hunger, whilst the problem of obesity and health problems connected to a diet that is calorie rich but nutrient poor continues to rise. The white bread from my youth comes back to haunt us in unhelpful ways as, with rising incomes, we all-too-easily choose food that is poor in nutritional value. We can clearly see that economic growth alone is not sufficient in tackling malnutrition.

The world is making progress, but at an uneven pace. Overall, we are not on course to meet the six World Health Assembly targets, which are the internationally agreed goals that all countries have signed up to. However, there are lessons to be learnt from countries such as Brazil, Bangladesh, and the state of Maharashtra in India, which show that with coherent policies and concerted actions, nutrition can be improved. And organisations such as the Micronutrient Initiative have done world-leading work with interventions on Vitamin A, iron, and zinc supplementation.

The good news is it that the world is slowly beginning to take notice of the urgent need to focus on nutrition. Just a few weeks ago governments and world leaders gathered in Rome for the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2). The fact that this was the first conference dedicated to nutrition in 22 years demonstrates the need for a renewed focus on nutrition from the international community.

Accountability was rightly a dominant theme throughout the conference. The ICN2 Framework for Action, although endorsed by all governments, is voluntary and there are significant difficulties in tracking expenditure for nutrition sensitive interventions, where sectors like agriculture can contribute to nutrition outcomes but often won't, or will have limited impact, unless nutrition is deliberately prioritised. We will need a vocal and sustained political will to ensure that commitments are honoured.

The report also highlights the need for an environment where both policies and platforms are shared and integrated across many sectors. This is essential if we are to address the underlying determinants of malnutrition. These include health, agriculture, education, sanitation, social protection and the empowerment of women - all things that cannot be addressed with a vertical approach.

The second piece of good news is that the Global Nutrition Report tells us 43% of commitments made at the Nutrition for Growth Summit are on track. However, we cannot ignore the fact that in 37% of cases it is not clear if the commitments are on course, and 11% of commitments were not reported on.

We need strong accountability and a clear framework for nutrition finance if we are to scale up our response in tackling malnutrition in all its forms.

The UK has a significant role to play in new initiatives to help raise much-needed donor and domestic financing for nutrition. RESULTS UK recently produced a report on Nutrition Aid Architecture, which explores these issues in more depth.

In addition to specific opportunities to increase nutrition funding, it must also take its place in the global policy framework. As negotiations continue on the next set of Sustainable Development Goals it is essential that nutrition is strongly embedded. Currently it is mentioned in only one of the 169 targets, which seems beyond belief given that in some countries malnutrition leads to up to 11 per cent of Gross National Product being squandered and has a significant role to play in ending preventable child deaths around the world.

Simply, it deserves greater attention.

The launch of the Global Nutrition Report is an important and critical step in ensuring that attention is given to nutrition, now, and every year. It raises challenges, and asks fundamental questions of fairness that even children instinctively understand. And we must not fail to respond.