1. Food & Nutrition Security

Thematic Area Research & Innovation Goals:


Recognize critical linkages between food systems, local context and dietary adequacy to maintain nutritional health across all stages of life, in an era of both inflexibility and transition in dietary imbalance and malnutrition. Research in this area would integrate public health, nutritional sciences, food security and ethics, agriculture and economics to address nutritional inequities in underserved societies across national income divides.  

Image credit: Bartosz Hadyniak/Getty Images

Scroll down page or use these shortcuts:

Summary of Concept 

Rationale for Prioritizing Food & Nutrition Security

We are witnessing multiple burdens of malnutrition, with some countries, communities and households suffering from combinations of undernutrition, overweight and obesity, and micronutrient deficiencies. Grappling with these multiple burdens of malnutrition are deeply tied to political, social and economic factors.

There are currently 784 million people who are undernourished, 159 million children under five who are chronically undernourished or stunted, 50 million children under five who are acutely malnourished or wasted, and 2 billion and 1.2 billion people who are estimated to be iron and zinc deficient respectively (FAO 2015; UNICEF/WHO 2015; Black et al 2013). Although child mortality and undernutrition is slowly declining, it is unclear if these trends will remain with significant external drivers that will challenge us – climate change, population pressure, persistent social inequalities, and geopolitical conflict.  Current estimates on climate change, for example, are expected to have dramatic impacts on crop yields, notably in South America, Africa, and South Asia, while also leading to greater food price volatility that are likely to have their greatest impact on the poor (Havlik et al 2015). 

AHW's Food & Nutrition Security icon. © Alliance for a Healthier World

AHW's Food & Nutrition Security story illustration circle (left) and icon (right) represent key elements in this theme. © Alliance for a Healthier World

Who are we serving?

Over one billion people live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.25 a day (Chen and Ravallion, 2008), while more than two-thirds of these extremely poor people go hungry (FAO, 2012). In the past, poverty was associated with severe forms of acute undernutrition, particularly in children, that were frequently seen in times of famine and hunger. Today, we know that poverty affects nutrition throughout the whole life-span and has a broad spectrum of manifestations, such as increased propensity to many diseases, both infectious and non-communicable, reduced physical work capacity, a lower learning and intellectual capacity, increased exposure and vulnerability to lifestyle-related and environmental risks, reduced participation in social decisions, and negligible capacity of resolution in the face of environmental challenges (Peña and Bacallao, 2002). This lack of food and poor nutrition impacts a person’s ability to earn a living, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and malnutrition. Individuals lose 10% of their potential lifetime earnings, and countries lose 2-3% of their GDP due to undernutrition (World Bank, 2006).

Malawian farmer displays a selection of red peppers with more of his harvest drying in background. Dedza, Malawi May 2011.  Image credit: Sheridan Jones McCrae © 

Malawian farmer displays a selection of red peppers with more of his harvest drying in background. Dedza, Malawi May 2011.  Image credit: Sheridan Jones McCrae © 

Organic green capsicums thriving without chemical fertilizer at Kusamala Institutute of Agriculture & Ecology, a permaculture farm outside of Lilongwe, Malawi. 2011.  Image credit: Sheridan Jones McCrae ©

Organic green capsicums thriving without chemical fertilizer at Kusamala Institutute of Agriculture & Ecology, a permaculture farm outside of Lilongwe, Malawi. 2011.  Image credit: Sheridan Jones McCrae ©

All forms of malnutrition are the result of interactions between poor diets, unhealthy food systems and inadequate health services. Food systems govern the types of food produced and their journey from farm to fork. As populations urbanize, incomes increase and the food industry concentrates and globalizes, the food system struggles to produce healthy food for everyone. The failure to identify and implement actions to make food systems healthier is costly. The human health consequences of malnutrition is detrimental: 45 percent of all under five mortality results from malnutrition and the multiple burdens of malnutrition represent tone of the biggest drivers of global burden of disease, with low-quality diets being the number one risk factor for global disease burdens. Despite the centrality of food quantity and quality as determinants of nutrition adequacy and the fundamental importance of food systems in determining which foods are available, affordable and acceptable, the multiple opportunities to intervene in food systems to promote nutrition are not well known, understood or addressed. This is because both food systems and malnutrition burdens are complex and context-specific, making it difficult to identify the links between them and the actions needed to leverage those links (High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition 2016)

To learn more about links between food and nutrition security and advancing global health equity - view the detailed concept paper on this thematic area.

    Proposed Research Priorities

    areas needing further focus

    • How can we better understand the complex, multiple burdens of malnutrition in LMICs: Undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight/ obesity), their determinants (including genetics), and interactions of nutrition and poor health?
    • How can sustainable diets and food systems for planet and human health be defined, measured and implemented, and where can (disruptive) technology can play a role in ensuring sustainability?
    • What are the mechanism to improve the food environment within urban settings: South Asia, SE Asia, Africa and how can food value chains be more nutrition sensitive?
    • What tools and technology do we have to prevent, adapt, and mitigate against food and water insecurity of populations in conflict regions/ situations and extreme weather (storms, drought)?
    • How can we better design and evaluate national programs / policies to promote adaptation to climate change – do they reach the poor / address inequities?
    • What are the health and environmental impacts of industrial animal production in LMICs?

    Theme Lead 

    Jessica Fanzo is the AHW Theme Leader for Food & Nutrition Security, and Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Global Food & Agricultural Policy and Ethics at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the Berman Institute of Bioethics, and the Department of International Health of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

    Jess Fanzo.jpg

    Further updates & resources about this AHW thematic Priority

    Articles & Media Coverage


    Learning Resources

    LEarn about AHW's Other Thematic Priorities & Strategic Approaches