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.