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The High Stakes of the UN Food Systems Summit

Anne Thurow
Schoolchildren in Ethiopia.

Childhood malnutrition can forever change the course of someone's life.

One word captures the stakes of the United Nations Food Systems Summit convening Thursday in New York City:


Well, two words, really: Potential Greatness. The Potential Greatness that resides in all of our children when they have access to the proper nutrition necessary to get off to the best possible start in life. In our world today, according to the UN agencies convening the Food Systems Summit, nearly one in every four children under the age of five are stunted in some manner from childhood malnutrition. Physical and cognitive stunting often results in a life sentence of underachievement, for stunted children become stunted adults. Stunted bodies, stunted brains, stunted ambitions, stunted achievements. One in four lives of squandered Potential Greatness.

The Tragedy of Squandered Potential

The haunting question hanging over the Summit is: what might these lives have accomplished for all of us were they not stunted by childhood malnutrition?

We can see and feel the high stakes of the Summit in the faces and stories of the students in this classroom in rural Ethiopia; it is an interactive slideshow that illustrates the true lifelong cost of childhood malnutrition and stunting. This classroom provides a glimpse back at the consequences of the global food system’s neglect of nutrition over the past decades, and it also offers a look into the future, particularly as the increasing rates of malnutrition during the relentless advance of COVID-19 carries the impact of the pandemic far into the future.

Refocusing on Nutrition

As our global food system has evolved over the decades, the focus has been on calories, yields, expansion, sameness, processed convenience. Rarely on what food, and eating, is really all about: nutrition.

It is inexplicable, this negligence of nutrition. We all know intuitively that good nutrition is the cornerstone of development and growth -- for individuals, families, communities, and our world as a whole. Yet we have needed a microscope to see the amount of money spent on nutrition investments by most governments, international agencies, corporations, and donors over the years. 

If the Food Systems Summit is to reach its potential to be truly transformational, it needs to assure that, finally, all our children have equal access to the nutrition necessary for them to achieve their – and our -- Potential Greatness. For the lost chance of greatness for any child becomes a lost chance of greatness for us all.

About the Author
Senior Fellow, Global Food and Agriculture
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Roger Thurow spent three decades at The Wall Street Journal as foreign correspondent based in Europe and Africa prior to joining the Council in 2010. His coverage spanned the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid, and humanitarian crises. He is the author of three books.
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