Nutrition is something that’s intimately connected to the stability of our world

| January 20, 2021 | 0 Comments

Joel Spicer is a global health leader who has led initiatives and partnerships in nutrition, maternal and child health, TB, HIV, innovative finance and resource mobilization. Over his career, he has worked for the Canadian International Development Agency, UNICEF, the WHO, Stop TB Partnership and the World Bank. He attended the Harvard School of Public Health on a Fulbright scholarship, where he obtained a master’s in international health policy and management, and also the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he earned a master’s of science in development studies.

Diplomat magazine: What effect has COVID had on the state of nutrition worldwide?
Joel Spicer: It’s been fairly catastrophic, actually. To begin with, just in terms of setting the framework, before COVID, you had a situation where one of three people on the planet suffered from some form of malnutrition, where one of every four children suffered from stunting, where there were almost 50 million cases of children being wasted. Then you throw a bomb like COVID on top of that, on top of a lot of people that were experiencing vulnerability and pre-existing conditions, and you’ve got the perfect storm of a malnutrition crisis.
Just to get into the hard numbers, recent modelling came out from the Standing Together for Nutrition Consortium. They’re forecasting that over the next two years, there will be an additional 2.6 million cases of stunted [from malnutrition] children, an additional 2.1 million cases of maternal anemia, which is particularly dangerous because anemia is one of the major contributors to maternal deaths, due to hemorrhage [and] an additional 9 million cases of wasting [where one becomes emaciated from hunger.] When you look at all of these numbers on top of a scenario where of the five million children under five who die from preventable causes every year — what people haven’t clicked into is that 45 per cent of those deaths have malnutrition as the underlying cause. And that’s before COVID.
There are all these mismatches in terms of how we allocate funding in order to create good. We’re going to see more than a decade of progress wiped out in a very short period of time. COVID is a health crisis, but it’s set up as an economic crisis, which is a perfect storm for a malnutrition crisis. Why? Two reasons: The first is that people who already didn’t have very much now have even less, so their ability to care for themselves and their families, their ability to purchase nutritious diets, has tanked. At the same time, the fiscal space of governments and donors has shrunk because of the need to shift everything to COVID treatment. The damage from trade impacts is going to shrink the amount of money they have to spend on the social sector, which was already not enough. [And] you see people who are afraid to access health-care services, so there’s a reduction in health-seeking behaviour. We’re seeing that in Canada, too. People are waiting until they’re almost dead before going to the hospital. All of these things together are setting up a very bad situation that threatens to cause a lost generation.

DM: You used the words ‘malnutrition crisis’ — are we there?
JS: Yeah, I think for people who have been [working] in this area for a long time, they’ll be banging their heads against the wall because they’ve been flagging a silent emergency and the world hasn’t stepped up. It’s one of the issues where our capacity to do good is so high and yet our lack of will to do anything about it is equally high.
There are some reasons for hope as you look at the map — it’s not all doom and gloom — but it was bad before and it’s significantly [worse now.] All those areas where we’ve made progress are at risk of going down. It’s absolutely a crisis and it is on fire now. And it’s not going to get better because the rate of vaccine rollout doesn’t look like all will be celebrating their freedom from COVID at the same time so these conditions are going to persist and the more they persist, the more they compound.

 A mother and her child in Sirajganj District, Bangladesh. Even before COVID, one of every four children on the planet was suffering from stunting. (Photo: nutrition international)

A mother and her child in Sirajganj District, Bangladesh. Even before COVID, one of every four children on the planet was suffering from stunting. (Photo: nutrition international)

You’ve got people living in poverty and many of them are day labourers. Their ability to make money and to eat that day depends on their ability to go out and work. You lock people down, then they start selling their assets. I’ve got three small kids and when they have diarrhea or a fever, I worry about them, but I don’t worry about them dying. From a parent perspective, when you think about other parents not far away, the choices they’re having to make are unconscionable. They’re making choices like ‘which kid do I feed?’ ‘What can I sell to look after my kid who has a fever?’ From an empathy point of view, that should really hit us as Canadians, when we think about the work we can do over there. I’m not talking about charity. I’m talking about actual development.
Their rate of recovery is directly connected to ours. There isn’t a world where we get to vaccinate ourselves and go back to our merry business.
The thing that’s really galling, there have been many cases where there are failed states and countries are in crisis — Yemen, Somalia, Syria — there’s a need for emergency food aid because if you don’t do it, people will die right away. But that’s different than the slow-motion crises of malnutrition in countries where significant portions of the population are falling through the cracks because they’re malnourished, they get pregnant, their children are born malnourished, their immune systems and their brain development is compromised from the beginning. If they’re lucky enough to go to school, they can’t learn as much, they get sick more often.

This mother and child in the Philippines benefit from Nutrition International’s programs. (Photo: nutrition international)

This mother and child in the Philippines benefit from Nutrition International’s programs. (Photo: nutrition international)

DM: Are United Nations estimates that 10,000 more children a month will die of hunger in the first year of the pandemic proving to be accurate?
JS: I think they’re accurate, but if anything, I worry that they’re underestimates. The reason for that is no one can actually know how long this situation will persist. Every month that it persists, people are getting weaker. They’re accurate, but we need to assess damage in terms of short, medium, long-term.

DM: What is the difference between food security and nutrition, and why does Nutrition International focus on the latter?
JS: This is a really important question because a lot of our challenge with addressing malnutrition in the world is that at the head-of-state level, people still don’t understand the difference between food and nutrition. If you want to end hunger, you fill bellies. If you want to end malnutrition — you have to get the right vitamins and minerals and nutrients. All human beings, in the absence of nutrition, are vulnerable.
In many countries around the world, it’s easy to be reductionist and say it’s a matter of food, hunger and starvation, but that is a little retro. In some cases, that’s the reality. People are running out of food for structural reasons or trade supply lines or war or the control of the supply to certain populations. I’m not saying it’s not real, it’s real. But food doesn’t solve malnutrition. Getting nutritious food to everyone does. There’s a big distinction between those two points. People like to point out that food systems need to be strengthened to provide more nutritious food for people. That’s entirely true, but it’s also very complicated. It’ll be, in some countries, decades. In the meantime, there’s catastrophic damage being done with things that are really easy to fix. That’s why we focus on the lowest cost, evidence-based, highest-impact interventions such as salt iodization, Vitamin A supplementation, folic acid for adolescent girls, multiple micro-nutrient supplements and breast-feeding. Anything you can think of that is really low cost and really high impact. If all the women breast-fed in the world, you’d save 800,000 deaths per year and generate $300 billion of additional economic impact. That’s pretty cheap intervention and there should be more support there.

A child receives a dose of Vitamin A supplementation in Kenya. Giving malnourished children two capsules per year, up to the age of five, reduces their mortality by 24 per cent. (Photo: nutrition international)

A child receives a dose of Vitamin A supplementation in Kenya. Giving malnourished children two capsules per year, up to the age of five, reduces their mortality by 24 per cent. (Photo: nutrition international)

DM: What kind of support for breast-feeding is lacking?
JS: I think investment is required to increase awareness in the population about it to counter some taboos. In many countries, multinational food companies that sell breast milk substitute are spending more on marketing so that people come up with the belief that breast milk substitute and powder is better for their babies than breast milk, which is actually malpractice and completely unethical. You need to remove that problem from the equation as well. Breast feeding has a long list of advantages [but global rates are only about 40 per cent.]

DM: The UN World Food Program expects acute hunger to double by the end of 2020. How does nutrition fit into this?
JS: You’ve got to look at the overlaps. It’s very important in terms of food security to make sure the population is able to grow, produce and have access to nutritious food. I contrast that with dropping food out of planes. That is really a last resort and it’s among the most expensive. There’s a difference between a prevention approach and a treatment approach.
One of the easiest and most impactful ways [to help] is fortifying food. One of the interesting phenomena we’re seeing with COVID, which I think has great potential for doing good after COVID, is that social safety net programs have been expanding globally. They now cover more than 1.8 billion people and by nature, their intent is to target the most vulnerable. But they’ve never been optimized for nutrition. They tend to get the lowest quality staple foods jammed through the channel. So, if you’re living in poverty at the end of that chain, you’ll get 30 kilos of white rice. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not going to help you. Because all of that production and distribution is centralized, it’s very easy to fortify — to put the vitamins and nutrients that are required into it. One of the things we’re looking at is social safety net programs as part of addressing not only food insecurity, but the malnutrition side. You could also put pulses into the mix. Because Canada is the leading exporter of lentils in the world, we’re looking at how to add iron and other micronutrients to them. They’re such a good source of protein, and cheap.
One of the things we’re reflecting on now in terms of the missed opportunities lens, if you have billions of people accessing these public distribution networks, can you also go a step farther and screen their kids for wasting? Could you also combine COVID vaccine, ultimately?
There’s a lot of siloed thinking in development right now. And, therefore a lot of good can be created by thinking about things differently. Malnutrition is a cross-cutter — investing in nutrition is an education investment, so it shouldn’t be outside the realm of consideration of people if they’re interested in education outcomes. This kind of holistic thinking is overdue.

Dropping food out of planes is really a last resort in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, Joel Spicer says. Nutrition International, meanwhile, is working on new methods to fortify pulses as well as wheat flour, maize, rice, salt and edible oils. (Photo: U.S. department of state)

Dropping food out of planes is really a last resort in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, Joel Spicer says. Nutrition International, meanwhile, is working on new methods to fortify pulses as well as wheat flour, maize, rice, salt and edible oils. (Photo: U.S. department of state)

DM: Can you explain what stunting is?
JS: [It’s] When you don’t get enough nutrition in the first 1,000 days, from conception to age two. If you look at the rate at which a child’s brain grows, it’s astronomical. If you miss that window, a lot of damage is not reversible. I’ve seen kids in India that I thought were six or so, but when you ask, that kid is 10 or 11. You’ll see a girl who looks like she’s 12, but she’s 17 and she’s just been married. When children are stunted, their future potential is cut off for life. They are never going to perform well. If they’re so far gone that they’re cognitively damaged, it’s really just manual labour for the future. In countries where we work, such as DR Congo, you have one in two children who are behind. And that’s a recipe for discontent and instability.
Nutrition is something that’s intimately connected to the stability of our world.

DM: We read that 550,000 per month will suffer from wasting, malnutrition that causes spindly limbs and distended bellies. That’s up 6.7 million from last year’s total of 47 million, which is a significant proportion. What are the causes and implications of wasting and why is it important to address them?
JS: The causes of wasting are manifold, but typically, [it happens] in terms of sudden shocks, where people’s access to food collapses, and that’s typically found in emergency situations where there’s a natural disaster or war. And the chance of dying in kids that are wasted is extraordinarily high. On the flip side, if you get to them in time, you can save their lives, so the interventions are totally worth it. But the cost is also astronomical. That brings to light the idea of treatment versus prevention. You need both. There’s a close association between kids who are wasted and stunted, but the costs to treat a wasted child, because they’re so fragile, are high. So, you’ve got to prevent that. The question becomes how do you bring about peace as quickly as possible because while they’re still fighting, there’s no way you can bring this under control. There’s a lot that can be done at the community level to strengthen systems that monitor children before they become wasted. It’s much cheaper and it is effective. If you keep waiting to find kids who are so close to death that they need super-expensive emergency treatment, and then they’re released into an environment that doesn’t care for them, it’s going to happen again. That’s the definition of madness. Investing more in prevention is going to remove more of the wasting problem in many — not all — situations.
The whole issue about treatment and prevention in nutrition is worth unpacking a little bit. There’s no country that doesn’t have malnutrition. It goes in both directions — you can be obese, too. What’s happening now is that health systems are being bankrupted by the consequences of malnutrition because it’s pushing health systems into treatment. If we could reverse that and put a lot more into the prevention side — access to healthy nutrition — we would start to see savings on the health-system side.

DM: What countries or regions would you name as the most at-risk and what numbers can you share about each?
JS: If you break down the projected damage in the next two years, it looks like 6.2 million children will be wasted in South Asia and about 1.9 million will be wasted in Sub-Saharan Africa — that’s additional cases of wasting. In terms of stunting, it’s an additional 1.2 million in Africa and 790,000 in South Asia. In a way, you’d expect South Asia to carry the highest burden because it has the biggest population, but what the data mask is that the damage potential is much higher in many ways in Africa. In Africa, when I think about the punch that it has taken economically and the damage we have yet to see, for a continent that in a few decades will have the highest number of workers on the planet, the damage done to children now will be seen when the children enter the workforce.
West Africa has particular challenges where damage is very high on women, adolescent girls and children. Many countries are small, with the exception of Nigeria, in terms of their population, but the rates are astronomical. We’re talking 40 to 50 per cent anemia in women and adolescent girls. It’s very hard to move forward with that size of anchor around the development aspiration in your country. In East and Southern Africa, the population is a bit higher and malnutrition has always been a problem. There’s some progress, but they’re going to fall back a lot, too. They’re trying to spin up social protection aspects, but that’s a stopgap measure. If you think of the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries that have experienced insecurity, it becomes quite serious. The strength of the health system, the strength of governance institutions, they determine the country’s ability to lean in. Our attitude is not to go in and try to fix the problem. It is ‘How can we [help] as expert allies alongside government so they can have capacity and support to tackle the problems themselves?’ In many cases, where there’s additional fiscal space, we’ll say ‘We’ll put money on the table if you’re willing to also put money on the table.’ In other countries that are deeply struggling and don’t have the fiscal space, we don’t do that.

DM: What do you do with the countries that are run by thugs?
JS: Tough question, there are lots of countries around the world that are run by thugs, not just in Africa. I think your right to rule depends on a contract you have with the people. No ruler or person in power has the moral authority to do what they’re doing if they can turn a blind eye to malnutrition in their fellow citizens. That’s a marker of a governance failure. So, there are some countries where you’d [work] with local partners and civil society more. In others, you partner with government. In still others, you’d distinguish between national and subnational governments.

DM: Are there countries outside of Africa you would name as being seriously at risk? Yemen, for example?
JS: I’m trying to think of a country that’s not worthy of being named. India, because of its population size, still has the highest number of stunted children. If you really wanted to take a bite out of malnutrition globally, you’d go to India. There are other countries where obesity is their major problem.

DM: Are there signs of hope of addressing global malnutrition?
JS: One of the things I’m hopeful about is Canada. At lot of countries are spending so much money on their own domestic problems that there’s concern many will cut donor budgets for supporting people overseas. The U.K. removed 4 billion pounds from their ODA [official development assistance] budget. They removed more money than Canada spends on development in a year because they’re so big. They were also a nutrition leader. They were one of the countries that was instrumental in making nutrition a global priority at the Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2013. Right now, they’re discussing internally what their contribution will be. This is a make or break year for nutrition. The action-forcing moment in December 2021 will be the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo and Canada will be the starting pistol. [At a recent ‘springboard’ event for this summit,] the issue [Canadians] planted the flag on was ‘What if the world invested more on women, adolescent girls and children and on things that are evidenced-based that are low-cost and high impact. Who’s with us?’

DM: How did the other players respond?
JS: I think the world took notice. Did they solve the problem? No, but this notion of having events that will solve the problems one at a time, they really don’t make sense to me. But saying ‘This is what’s important, who’s with us?’ that makes more sense to me. From that point of view, I’m hopeful.
So I’m optimistic. With COVID, that which was urgent is more urgent. Canada [coming] forward, it makes me proud.

DM: What kinds of initiatives are working and what do we need more of?
JS: One of the things that [International Development] Minister Karina Gould announced [at the springboard event] was $29.5 million for Nutrition International to lead a catch-up campaign on Vitamin A. For those who aren’t aware of this little red capsule, it’s a quintessential Canadian story. [Researchers] figured out a long time ago that if you could get two capsules per year into a child between the age of six months and five years, you can cut their mortality by 24 per cent [in countries where children are deficient.] Canadians figured out how to make a heat-stable capsule and it’s been scaled up around the world. It costs two cents to make one capsule. Since we’ve started, we’ve saved more than 5 million children’s lives with this simple innovation. It cuts deaths by diarrhea by 15 per cent.
The second thing we’re working on is social safety net programs. We’re really excited about being able to optimize them for nutrition outcomes. We’re starting work with the Gates Foundation in India, specifically to get double fortified salt and cooking oil, fortified with vitamins A and D. It’ll have a huge impact when it’s up and running. Most salt has iodine in it, which is really important for brain development. It’s been a major source of preventable mental impairment around the world. At the University of Toronto, we worked with them to put iron in it. Salt is widely used so if you can optimize it, it’ll have a big effect.
Finally, anemia is one thing that’s really important. I would love to see the world rally around the issue of anemia. It’s a major issue for women around the world. There are more than a billion women, adolescent girls and children who suffer from anemia. It contributes to 20 per cent of maternal deaths. People get it here, too, but in other countries, it’s a killer. For the world to focus on maternal and adolescent nutrition would be incredible. That was the main thrust of Melinda Gates’ remarks at the Springboard event [in mid-December] so that’s something we’re [working] on as well. It’s also the target that affects women most that is the farthest off-track. That’s something we can change.

DM: Where are we on the nutrition-related SDGs and how far has COVID set those back?
JS: About 12 of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) have indicators that are highly relevant to nutrition and they won’t be achieved unless we meet the nutrition goal. I’d reference the World Health Assembly (WHA) targets for nutrition. The SDGs are due in 2030. The WHA targets are due in 2025 so they’re the canary in the coal mine and we focus on those a little bit more. When the targets were set in 2012, 30 per cent of women had anemia. And those numbers are through the roof with pregnant women — about 42 per cent of all pregnant women have anemia. That’s terrible news because their babies are much more likely to be low birthweight babies, which predisposes them to stunting, which predisposes them to becoming overweight and obese later in life and to having more non-communicable diseases. So, all of this cycle really argues for doubling down on the mother and upstreaming on adolescent girls. In order to achieve that target, we have to get that number down to 15 per cent, but it’s increased — it’s actually over 30 per cent right now and there’s no country that’s on track. And that’s just a lack of attention.

DM: When it comes to nutrition, what would you say are the top three problems that must be addressed?
JS: One, we need to focus. Two, we need to figure out where to get the money and, three, we need to get our priorities straight.
We really need to focus on global time-bound targets. There’s a reason that private sector companies move in certain directions. It’s because they have targets. We need targets and [we need] to pay attention to them. Tracking our progress relentlessly against them to see if we’re on track — we could do a bit of that in development. Because of the financial damage caused by COVID, there’s less money, so focusing on which people, which places and which things we’re talking about [becomes more important.] In terms of people, we need to target women, adolescents and children. In terms of places, we need to target countries where the greatest areas of vulnerability are.
A lot of the spin in the media has been about starvation and crisis and food and hunger. When you combine that with the fact that many heads of state don’t know the difference between food and nutrition, I’m not sure that it’s the right way to frame the problem.
Regarding where to get the money, the modelling ballparks the additional funds required to prevent damage at $1.2 billion. If you combine that with the World Bank’s [estimate] on what it would cost to scale up nutrition, they had $7 billion a year. But that was before COVID. It sounds like a lot of money, but World Bank estimates say if you did invest that additional money, you could save three million lives, take out 265 million cases of anemia and prevent millions of stunting cases. It might seem crazy, but it’s only crazy if you think about how we spend $5.2 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies. We spend billions on agricultural subsidies so we can keep producing food that isn’t nutritious, some of which we throw away. That’s the definition of insanity as well. And I’m not even getting to weapons spending.
In terms of getting our priorities straight, I would be wrong to not discuss the food system for a moment. The way we produce food on this planet is broken. Our food system produces 25 per cent of the greenhouse gases every year. We make cheap calories that actually hurt people and the environment and it’s created a scenario where we’re fuelling massive cases of obesity and hunger’s increasing as well. When you look at the growing [gap] between rich and poor people, which has only been made worse by COVID, I think that means that the way we live is on a collision course with reality because it’s based on an infinity growth level, but the planet’s resources are finite. We have put profit and politics over people and planet.
There are more challenges, like the need for champions and then political will.

DM: What can you tell me about Plumpy’nut’s role in the fight against malnutrition?
JS: Plumpy’nut is one of the tools to prevent wasting. It’s a ready-to-use therapeutic food with a high concentration of calories and nutrients in a peanut buttery paste and it works. But it comes back to some of the points I made before. It’s nice to throw commodities at people and it’s important sometimes. But the hard work and the important work is to look at the systems and the government and the authorities to strengthen their capability to tackle this. The most important part of the system are the community health volunteers going door to door in helping and educating people and that’s grossly underinvested in. If you want to save the most lives, invest in community health workers and then you’ll remove the need to use Plumpy’nut by a significant amount. Plumpy’nut is good. Preventing the need for Plumpy’nut is better.

DM: You’ve already offered a few, but what other practical, doable, non-bureaucratic solutions do you have for the malnutritional crisis we’re now in?
JS: [A professor of mine once said] ‘Until you make it more comfortable to do the right thing, pointing your finger isn’t really going to change the situation.’ Practical, non-bureaucratic solutions [would include] the global initiative on anemia. Then I’d say level the playing field for governments in terms of regulation, taxation and legislation in regards to the food environment — stop food polluters. There’s no regulatory or tax environment that factors in the full cost of these products. Think about soda pop. I can buy some sugar water that’s bad for me and put it in a plastic bottle and throw it into the environment? What a negative double-word score that is.
On the flip side of that, though, we’re starting to see the spread of sugar taxes, where governments are saying ‘Above a certain concentration of sugar, you’re going to pay this much more.’ That space is expanding. I think we’re late to the table, but I’d love to see more. I don’t mean creating a nanny state, I mean creating a situation where governments identify a revenue stream from something that is bad for you and they put that additional money into something that is good for you. It’s not going into general revenue, it’s going into prevention. That would be a nice circle to create. It’s easy to say and really hard to do.

DM: Are there any places where money is being wasted in the fight to curb world hunger and malnutrition?
JS: We’ve already talked about one element and that is treatment versus prevention. I’m not saying treatment is a waste of money — it’s essential and lifesaving. But looking at how the volume of cases to treat is generated and trying to go upstream and looking at smart investments that are cheaper — I think that would be a good use of money. I approach this question as more ‘We could get a lot more bang for our buck.’ We need more money for nutrition, but, to be fair, we need to get more nutrition for the money.
There’s a lack of co-ordination. There’s greater efficiency we could bring to it. You can’t have five different people with five different issues tangentially related to nutrition advising the same person in government about how to spend their limited budget. We need to be on the same page about using the money we have in the highest-impact places. There’s some siloization in development around the world. It’s a common problem.
When we confuse food and nutrition, we risk lowering the investment. Both are important, but we have to be clear about that. And again, that last piece is focus. Focus on women, adolescent girls and children. Focus like a laser there.

DM: So you would say there is waste?
JS: Well, it depends. Do you call it waste to save a child’s life and then see them back in a month? I wouldn’t. I think the waste is the opportunity we lose every day by not investing in something obvious. The good nutrition creates is manifold beyond nutrition and health. There will also be a need to optimize targeting.
DM: How can people (especially Canadians) help, beyond the desperate need for donated money?
JS: By leaning in, in full support of pregnant women, young people and teens. We should also be humble enough to look at our own country, as well. How the SDGs are different from the Millennium Development Goals is the principle of universality. And we have malnutrition in our country, too. We’ve got to look at First Nations and Inuit people. No way a Coke should be cheaper than milk.
There are some related issues — we’ve got to look closely at homelessness and the normalization of food banks.
It’s within our power to end malnutrition. The people who suffer the most are somehow out of our view. They aren’t seen as essential for our future. That’s a big mistake. We need to help decision-makers be equipped with the right knowledge and information and if they don’t take the right action, we need to support them with resources. It’s a strange world where the ruler of a country has several private planes while people are starving.
What can Canadians do? Canadians can understand about the work their country has been doing in nutrition globally. There’s been a constancy in Canada’s leadership on nutrition that goes back 30 years, across multiple governments.
I’d love for there to be a world in which Canadians care as much about those developments as they do about the landmine treaty. It is well within our capability to have a positive influence on the world around us.

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