AI Is Helping Solve Malnutrition

By Matt Freeman, Executive Director, Stronger Foundations for Nutrition.

Originally posted in Newsweek.

As any good futurist will tell you, when responsibly deployed, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies can be a powerful force for good in our world. They can be used to answer fundamental questions about human health, including early detection of diseases such as cancer and heart disease, enabling life-saving interventions at ever earlier stages.

These technologies can help unlock new solutions that accelerate human prosperity, with 27 percent of workers in advanced economies in high-exposure, high-complementarity occupations poised to reap productivity and economic benefits from AI. A future where we all efficiently work away, while driving down highways chauffeured by driverless cars, is a much closer reality than once seemed possible. As these technologies rapidly roll out in—and benefit—wealthy nations, now is a critical moment to ensure equitable access around the world so we don’t deepen the digital divide.

This inclusive progress is perhaps nowhere more important than in global nutrition, a sector in deep need of scalable solutions given 40 percent of the planet cannot afford a healthy diet and malnutrition is the leading cause of death and ill health globally.

Early applications, mostly in wealthy nations, are extremely promising: AI is being used to recognize different dishes, calculate prices, provide nutrition information, and complete transactions in catering services, using deep metric learning to accurately identify each dish in just 0.3 seconds. And AI-powered apps like Fooducate are helping people track what they’re eating, see the nutritional profile of food, and receive recommendations for those with diet-related diseases such as diabetes.

We are now beginning to see AI and other digital tools being deployed for the rest of the world, where locally-led innovation is well-poised to leverage these technologies. Publicly-funded research has supported AI assistants—already being deployed in wealthier markets to recognize foods—to identify crop disease in plants. This gives farmers key insights so they can adapt to these risks, helping them to breed only healthy plants and achieve disease-free fields.

Large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT—already boasting 100 million weekly users that use it to maximize efficiency in their daily responsibilities—are also being leveraged to coach frontline workers on kangaroo mother care, promoting skin-to-skin contact for low-birthweight and exclusive breastfeeding. This is just one of 50 innovations recognized by the Grand Challenges initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which last year awarded $5 million in grants to projects that harness LLMs to reduce global inequality.

These technologies can also be used to make food safer. Blockchain is being used to empower producers and consumers of African indigenous vegetables with sourcing information, helping reassure people that the food they are consuming is safe, and incentivizing producers to verify the water quality used in post-harvest handling.

Many of these technologies are currently being utilized by digitized extension agents and more commercially advanced operations. But given the rapid penetration of smart devices and connectivity even in rural areas, it’s not hard to imagine a near future where consumers in every mom-and-pop shop around the world are identifying the nutritional value of their food, from where it was sourced, and where they can buy it cheaper.

The next frontier for AI in nutrition is to understand the very nature of food itself, in ways that can profoundly change the course of human health. A massive international effort called the Periodic Table of Food is mapping the composition of food on a biomolecular level. The open access data platform will allow users around the world to optimize regenerative agriculture practices, inform dietary guidelines, target food production for climate action, understand the impact of foods on gut health, and more.

Speaking of gut health, the contents of the gut microbiome are directly linked to broader health and nutritional outcomes, as evidenced by a landmark 2013 study. Now, research into Microbiome Directed Foods is starting to come online. There is exciting new research into a probiotic supplement of B. infantis, a vital gut bacteria that helps break down the sugars in breastmilk. If babies who aren’t born with enough of the bacteria can receive enough of it from these interventions, it could prevent a lifetime of poor absorption of key nutrients.

One can even imagine a future of precision nutrition for all, where regardless of a person’s birthplace and economic status they can access technology that can predict how they uniquely respond to different foods and to different nutrients, which can aid in optimizing nutrition interventions.

A nourished world is possible, and we can use AI to get there faster. The prize is human progress, and that is a prize any good futurist should seek.

Countries are Failing Women on Hunger

By Matt Freeman, Executive Director, Stronger Foundations for Nutrition.

Originally posted on InDepthNews.

It is often assumed that women and girls disproportionately bear the brunt of global hunger and malnutrition. Analysis from Equal Measures 2030’s SDG Gender Index that tracks countries’ gender equality progress on the United Nations’ sustainable development goals now shows the true scale of the issue.

Over 1 billion girls and women today live in 38 countries with a bad to worse score on SDG 2 focused on food and nutrition in the Index. And in more than half of the countries studied since 2015, the situation is getting worse due to backsliding on key indicators like anaemia, undernourishment, women’s food insecurity and women’s perceptions of food costs.

If this trend continues, by 2030, the number of girls and women affected could nearly double.

The picture is not only bleak at a global scale but worrying at home, too. SDG 2 is one of three goals in the Index, and the situation for girls and women is worsening in the United States.

As of 2020, the US ranked just 34th in the world for women and girls’ hunger and nutrition, ranking behind countries with far lower GDPs like Czechia, Slovenia and Lithuania.

The high rates of malnutrition we see among girls and women are symptoms of the disproportionate and gendered impacts of the wider crises gripping our world. The COVID-19 pandemic was a perfect example of this. Shocks to the global economy and an increased burden of childcare led to greater job losses for women than men.

 

Designated as essential workers

 

Women were also disproportionately designated as essential workers, leading to greater rates of stress and emotional exhaustion. These impacts stretched well beyond just economic effects: lockdowns also contributed to sky-rocketing rates of gender-based violence.

Though inequalities are often stark in times of crisis, the seeds of these issues have often been sown long before many of these moments of shock and tragedy hit. A range of barriers have been built into the everyday lives of adolescent girls and women that undermine their position in society and deprive them of the resources they need to thrive, such as their access to healthy and nutritious food.

It is a particularly tragic irony that girls and women often eat last and least, even though they disproportionately grow the food and prepare it for their families. For example, recent data from Kenya showed that women spent over six times as much time as men on food and meal preparation.

These high rates of malnutrition, with the heavy burden girls and women, carry, place an unnecessary cap on the potential of adolescent girls and women worldwide, undermining progress on gender equality and trapping more than 1 billion girls and women in a vicious cycle of poor health and underachievement.

Gender inequality and malnutrition are intimately interlinked, so scaling investments from governments and other donors for women and girls are core to the solution. Well-nourished girls perform better educationally and are more likely to remain in school, decreasing their risk of getting married and having children at a young age. These are all factors that are key drivers of malnutrition.

Investing in girls and women isn’t just good for their health, but it can also be a major enabler of economic growth. The rising number of female leaders globally, both in government and business, is a testament to what can be achieved when we pay attention to what girls need from the earliest stages of their lives.

 

The impact of women’s participation

 

We know the impact of women’s participation in these forums can be profound. A McKinsey report revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender board diversity were 25% more likely to deliver above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

The ripple effects of nourishing girls and women do not end there. We also know that children born to mothers with good nutrition are more likely to live healthy and fulfilling lives themselves, meaning that investments in women’s and girls’ nutrition are an investment in the children of tomorrow.

It is estimated that simply scaling solutions like multiple micronutrient supplementation (MMS), which is the vitamin women take during pregnancy, would contribute 2.3 million years of learning to the next generation.

Though the links between gender equality and nutrition are clear, action has been relatively small and fragmented until now because of a lack of practical guidance on how to invest in this double dividend.

Because of this, funding and programming continue to flow in under-resourced silos while high rates of gender inequality and malnutrition continue unabated.

A recent report calls on the global community to bridge the divides between these sectors and make the kinds of integrated investments needed to turn this vicious cycle into a virtuous one.

Women and girls’ experiences of hunger and malnutrition are intimately intertwined with the everyday inequalities they face. We can build a stronger and more equal world through a deeper understanding of these challenges and simple, practical, yet truly transformative steps.

Extreme weather is worsening our food supply

By Matt Freeman, Executive Director, Stronger Foundations for Nutrition.

Originally posted in Euronews.

Last year was the hottest ever on record, and scientists worry this year will be worse. Thunderstorms in Europe destroyed 9.1 billion euros in assets, while the U.S. experienced twenty-eight separate weather and climate disasters throughout 2023 costing at least one billion dollars a piece. Again, the most ever. It’s not hard to see a trend.

If we don’t avert an impending climate crisis over the next 26 years, in 2050 a quarter of a million more people will die each year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Nearly every child on earth – over 2 billion children – will face more frequent heatwaves which put them at greater health risk, while shocks from extreme weather and climate-related conflict displace hundreds of millions from their homes. In all, the IPCC predicts a 10% decrease in years of healthy life from climate change-induced malnutrition alone.

The impacts of this climate crisis will be particularly acute for girls and women, amplifying existing gender inequalities. By mid-century, up to 236 million more women and girls will be food insecure, compared to 131 million more men and boys. Increasingly intense heat waves will also have profound effects on pregnancy – increasing risks like pre-eclampsia and infection, and leading to stillbirth, complications from gestational diabetes, and preterm birth.

26 years is not some far off future world. Most people have been on the planet for more time already.

By 2050, our growing and strained population will demand 35% – 56% more food from crops that will yield dramatically less – with NASA studies projecting impacts on maize and wheat production as early as 2030. And it’s not just production volumes – due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other climate effects these crops will be less dense in key minerals and protein. As a result, 23% – 62% more people will be severely stunted, with their physical and mental potential irreversibly held back.

26 years is not far off, and global malnutrition is already at crisis levels. Right now around the world, half of children and over 60% of adolescent and young women are already deficient in essential micronutrients which are the building blocks of good health. This is the global picture, but it’s a crisis everywhere. Over a third of women and young girls in the US are iron-deficient, as are 61% – 97% of Europeans. And for countries like Somalia and Ethiopia which are on the verge of famine, the story is even more tragic.

The clock is ticking. Imagine the world just ten seconds from now. McDonalds will have sold approximately 750 hamburgers in America. Also, the next child will have died of malnutrition. This is not just about our future, it’s about the present.

What will we do? Will we let millions of children die, every year? Will we limit the potential of billions of children, girls and women all over the world? Will we stay on the path of burning our planet to the ground to grow foods that kill us, rather than sustain us?

The answer has to be no, we won’t.

We can’t be resigned to a depressed fate when there is so much to live for.

More than three million children a year don’t have to die. More than 1 billion girls and women do not have to be undernourished. We can stop it. We can close the nutrient gap and live in a world where choosing healthy and sustainable food is the easy choice, for everyone.

I do not say “we can” in hopeful belief, but rather in confidence because the evidence and innovation is increasingly on our side. It only takes the will. How? For all its very real complexity, it’s also pretty clear what needs to be done.

Children shouldn’t be dying from malnutrition. Instead of spending trillions of dollars on fossil fuel subsidies, , just a tiny fraction of that would be more than enough to end global hunger. Instead of wasting money, we should be stopping children from dying of wasting – making critical sustained investments into life-saving Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic Foods, and cost-effective interventions like prenatal vitamins, which nourish mothers and their future children and can help prevent this tragedy from happening in the first place.

Instead of subsidizing billions of dollars of corn and soybeans that never leave US farms and contribute to the more than one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions caused by our broken food systems, we should be strengthening local nutritious food, health systems and safety nets.

It is possible to live in a stronger world. Through leveraging the collective global strength of governments and non-state actors to make producing and consuming nutritious, sustainable food the easy choice, we can support leaders to offer better policy solutions, unlock responsible capital, and empower consumers to make decisions which are healthier for their bodies, and for the planet.

We can nourish everyone alive, and every child being born, every second, for twenty-six years and the rest of our collective time on this planet.

Progress is slow and the road ahead is hard, but this is a fight we cannot resign ourselves to lose. Twenty-six years is tomorrow so let’s start today.

Launching Nourish Equality: A Philanthropic Guide to Good Nutrition and Gender Equality

Worldwide, rates of malnutrition among girls and women are sky high. 1 billion adolescent girls and women suffer from undernutrition and two in every three women of reproductive age worldwide suffer from at least one essential micronutrient deficiency. 

These high rates of malnutrition place a heavy and unnecessary cap on the potential of adolescent girls and women worldwide, undermining progress on gender equality and limiting broader health and development outcomes.

Though the links between gender equality and nutrition are clear, up until now action has been relatively limited and fragmented because of a lack of practical guidance on how to take action, particularly for philanthropic funders.

To close this gap, Stronger Foundations for Nutrition has launched: Nourish Equality – A Philanthropic Guide to the Double Dividend of Good Nutrition and Gender Equality. Profiled today in Axios as an effective philanthropic intervention, Nourish Equality provides practical tools across the grantmaking cycle to support funders and other leaders to deliver a ‘double dividend’ of gender equality and good nutrition.

It unpacks the evidence base around the intersections of these two issues and provides practical tools to enable donors to mainstream gender in their investments and to strengthen nutrition outcomes in gender equality-focused grantmaking. In doing so, it calls on the nutrition and gender equality communities to bridge the divides between their sectors and make the kinds of integrated investments needed to end the vicious cycle of gender inequality and poor health.

“At CIFF, we firmly believe that embedding equity into our grant-making portfolio is not just the right thing to do, but will also enhance the impact, relevance and sustainability of our giving. Stronger Foundations’ new guide is a timely and welcome resource to help funders unpack the importance of mainstreaming gender equity into their nutrition portfolios and support them in doing so effectively.”

Children’s Investment Fund Foundation Anna Hakobyan, Chief Impact Officer

The guide has been welcomed by other donors and sector leaders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, International Education Funders Group, Eleanor Crook Foundation, END Fund, OECD NetFwD, Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, Rotary International and the WHO. 

To explore Nourish Equality and its practical and yet truly transformative steps toward a stronger and more equal world, click here.

Wasting in a World of Plenty

Originally published in Newsweek.

By Matt Freeman, William Moore, and Anna Hakobyan

Stronger Foundations for Nutrition; Eleanor Crook Foundation; Children’s Investment Fund Foundation

There is a deep injustice in our food system. For a nation to thrive, every child, family and community must have access to nutritious food that they can afford. This basic right is just a dream for 800 million people around the world who go to bed hungry every night. Yet ironically, while 10 percent of the world goes hungry, in our world of plenty, we waste shocking amounts of food.

According to a 2023 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over one-third of the food produced in the U.S. doesn’t get eaten. Most of it ends up in landfills, creating tons of methane gas that worsens climate change. This is not a new problem. Back in 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture along with the EPA set a target to cut food waste by 50 percent by 2030. The U.S. has not made much headway toward achieving this goal, and so the fruits of prosperity die on the vine.

While our food wastes in landfills, lives are wasting away. Globally, 45 million children are experiencing the worst type of malnutrition—known as wasting—which for some means literally starving to death. More than 1 million children die of wasting each year. At the same time, two out of three women of reproductive age lack the key vitamins and minerals they need to survive and thrive, and 3 billion people cannot afford a nutritious diet.

The numbers are staggering, especially because good nutrition is the building block of development and the anchor of human health. In all its forms, most of the world’s potential is wasting away from malnutrition. But malnutrition is a preventable tragedy. We have proven, scalable solutions to prevent it, and for those most at risk, we have therapeutic nutrition products that can save children from dying.

We also know the price of investing in a thriving population: achieving the World Health Assembly targets for good nutrition would cost just $10.8 billion per year—nearly one-fourth of the amount Americans spent on soda last year—and only a fraction of that is what it would take to live in a world where children no longer die of wasting. Currently, significant underinvestment undermines progress on nearly all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Over these past two years, the seeds of change have been planted. In 2022, we saw the largest commitment ever to child wasting treatment—with more than half a billion dollars committed by public and private donors to dramatically increase malnutrition treatment coverage. This historic investment resulted in 7.3 million children under 5 being reached with life-saving treatment globally for severe wasting (a 35 percent increase from 2021), the highest annual increase and the highest number of children treated for severe wasting since large-scale treatment began.

We’re also seeing exciting new innovations in how to finance and scale delivery of nutrition services. The Child Nutrition Fund—a new effort to unlock financing for the scale-up of wasting prevention and treatment, including critical domestic resources—is quickly growing, focused on essential government-led actions for the early prevention, detection, and treatment of child wasting.

In parallel, after nearly 10 years of work—much of it catalyzed by philanthropy—the World Health Organization launched new guidelines for the prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition. Among other potentially lifesaving recommendations, the revised guidelines empower community health workers to diagnose and treat children for acute malnutrition in their homes.

This is also a moment to pursue equity for all women, no matter where they live. Prenatal vitamins—a product which most pregnant women in America can easily access—have historically been unavailable to women in the rest of the world, but are now ready to be scaled to everyone. Referred to as multiple micronutrient supplements, or MMS, simple solutions like this can protect the lives of millions of women—and their babies—during pregnancy and after birth.

And for the first time, nutrition’s critical role was featured prominently in the other great challenge of our time, climate change. At the international climate conference, COP28, hundreds of countries and non-state actors made new commitments to support sustainable, nutritious food systems. And at the World Economic Forum recently in Davos, the food waste crisis was discussed at many tables.

We are on the path to saving and improving the lives of millions around the world. The evidence, vision, and infrastructure for transformational change is in place and the socio-economic benefits of every dollar spent on nutrition are in double digits. Many countries and organizations are lining up alongside other partners to take action. Though the momentum is here, we need more determined action from country governments, philanthropies, and multilateral agencies, faster, to make this dream a reality.

Launching our Evidence Review on Climate Change & Nutritious Foods

Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, deepening already alarming rates of global malnutrition.

As a result, malnutrition is expected to be the number one cause of all additional climate-related child mortality.

There is increasingly strong recognition across the climate, health, and food systems communities that nutrition must be included in the global response to the climate crisis to avoid the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and achieve mitigation targets, but a deeper understanding of the challenge and impactful solutions is essential as we move from advocacy, to commitment, and into implementation.

Without a clear understanding of the evidence – and the gaps, there is a risk that nutrition-blind climate policies will have an even greater negative impact on global hunger and diets than the direct impacts of climate change itself.

Our new Evidence Review on Climate Change & Nutritious Foods summarizes how climate change will continue to affect the production and availability of nutritious foods, and considers data-driven solutions to mitigate emissions from food systems while protecting human health.

Click here to learn more.

Devex #FoodSecured virtual event: Malnutrition amid climate crisis – Turning ideas into action

The global food system is in crisis. Conflict, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed its existing flaws and fragilities, putting millions more at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition. As the climate emergency grows in severity, the need to build resilience has only become more urgent. These interplaying factors are what the World Food Programme has described as the “perfect storm for unprecedented global nutrition crises” that will impact vulnerable groups, including women and children, the most.

With COP28 approaching next month, it’s crucial that climate’s impact on food and nutrition rises up the international agenda. Which is why Stronger Foundations for Nutrition was pleased to join Devex in a virtual event as part of the ‘Food Secured’ campaign, supported by its partners Action Against Hunger, Bayer, Catholic Relief Services and UNICEF USA.

Our Executive Director Matt Freeman spoke to the unique role that philanthropy can play in building healthier and more sustainable systems, for both people and planet:

When you’re thinking about issues of the scale of climate change and malnutrition, the most important thing that philanthropy can be doing is acting as an enabler for systemic change. Working on a project-by-project basis isn’t enough. We need to find points of high leverage where we can unlock the investments of other actors: whether that’s in evidence generation, elevating the voices of local communities to demand change, or acting as catalytic capital to leverage scale finance from the public and private sector.

To learn more about the wider Food Secured campaign, click here.

In partnership with Devex and Rotary International, Stronger Foundations for Nutrition launches new video calling for integrated, child-centered solutions

In times of crisis, children always suffer the most. As issues like climate change throw new and greater challenges at us, it is more important than ever that communities – and our channels for reaching them – are strong and resilient, providing children everything they need to survive and to thrive.

But so many of the essential services that children need are delivered in silos – if they are delivered at all – while for families it is just one life.

We must do better for children, and members of the health and nutrition philanthropic community are starting to find new ways of doing so. Our partner Rotary International is one of them: the integrated approach of its PolioPlus program provides a model for community-focused, child-centered delivery of health and nutrition services.

In partnership with Devex and its series Food Secured, this new video explores Rotary’s success in leveraging polio eradication infrastructure to also tackle malnutrition among the world’s most vulnerable. It is estimated that introducing Vitamin A supplementation to this program has contributed to preventing more than 1.25 million deaths by decreasing children’s susceptibility to infectious diseases.

To learn more about Rotary International’s work, and their efforts to address the dual burden of polio and malnutrition, visit https://www.rotary.org/

Interview with FinTech.TV: Why investing in nutrition is a foundational investment in the Sustainable Development Goals

Our world is grappling with a food crisis that is taking so many lives, while relying on broken systems to fight it. The impact is devastating – upwards of half the global population are malnourished. The toll is far greater than hunger: nutrition has a profound impact on nearly all the  Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), undermining progress on everything from education to women’s empowerment to economic prosperity.

As Matt Freeman discusses in his interview with FinTech.TV, the urgency of this moment means we must resist the call to choose between saving lives today or fixing systems for tomorrow. With conviction and in partnership, we can fight these challenges now and invest in a stronger world.

This is a winnable fight, but the scale of the challenge is far too great for any actor to address on their own. We need a broader and better connected philanthropic community, working alongside all global development partners, to end malnutrition so we are stronger in the face of these monumental challenges.

Philanthropy has a critical role in this change – as investors, connectors and catalysts – to help build food and health systems that are future fit and focused on supporting the most vulnerable. Which is why Stronger Foundations is uniting a global philanthropic coalition, to invest in our human potential and put an end to malnutrition. For good.

Transforming food systems: The fertile ground for progress

By Matt Freeman, Executive Director, Stronger Foundations for Nutrition

Our food systems are at a breaking point. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing conflicts and a climate emergency are deepening the cracks in systems that were already failing billions of us.

Even before the food crisis, we knew that our food systems were not fit for purpose. More than three million children a year are dying from malnutrition — representing nearly 50% of all child deaths. Over 3 billion people — all over the world — cannot afford a healthy diet. And food and agricultural production is one of the greatest contributors to climate change, responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions.

Now with the food crisis, these long-standing issues are even further threatening the lives of the most vulnerable. It is estimated that every 5% rise in food prices increases the number of children worldwide suffering from wasting — the most tragic form of malnutrition — by 9%. And it is deepening inequalities: the world’s poorest are now spending 50% of their incomes on food compared to 20% for the richest, with the majority of what we are buying more harmful for our bodies than good.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With the will to transform food systems, there is enormous potential to support human health while also improving livelihoods and protecting the planet.

Let’s dream bigger.

Today, almost half of all the calories we consume come from sugar cane, maize, wheat and rice, which fill bellies but do little else to nourish bodies and minds. And for those who can afford it, we fill our protein requirements — and then some — from the harmful and unsustainable production of meat that pushes our planet further to the precipice.

Tomorrow, all of us should have access to diverse, nutrient-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts, as well as more healthy and sustainable proteins from both animals and plants that can help our people and planet flourish.

To make this shift, we need to make nutritious foods the easy and affordable choice. It is estimated that, to meet requirements for global healthy diets, we will need to increase production of these nutritious foods by 50% — 150% or more. That will require changes in policy, investments to scale inclusive innovation, and shifts in consumer demand. None of this is easy, but there is increasingly a path forward to do it.

Let’s make this #EarthDay the moment where today’s broken food systems become the fertile ground for progress. More nutritious food systems will help all of us to thrive in the face of crisis, and build bridges to a stronger tomorrow.

To learn more about how we can work together towards a better nourished, more sustainable and stronger world, check out our ‘Transforming Food Systems’ factsheet or our partnership with Devex on the ‘Food Secured’ series. And if you are a philanthropist, please reach out to join us in building Stronger Foundations for Nutrition.