The escalating food shortages resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war could be setting up Nigeria’s most vulnerable group for a hard hit from malnutrition in the coming days as access to relevant food nutrition thins out.
The war which has increasingly spurred huge drops in food exports and triggered price increases of up to 30 percent for food staples has pushed women and children in some regions of the country on the brink of devastation, according to António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general at a recent global call for a resolution to food insecurity.
The situation has equally made it difficult for humanitarian aid to reach more people with assistance operations suffering the impact of rising food prices, the chief said, noting that it will make light of the impact of releases from the Central Emergency Response Fund.
Globally, the number of people suffering inadequate access to food has increased from 440 million to 1.6 billion due to the high cost of staple foods. Projections indicate that the longer the war drags, the higher the number of those likely to fall into poverty and starve, increasing stunting and wasting in children.
It means about 23.1 million unemployed Nigerians and more cannot eat right, especially women, infants, children, and adolescents.
Nigeria has the second-highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32 percent of children under five, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, (UNICEF).
An estimated 2 million children in Nigeria suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), with only two out of every 10 children affected being reached with treatment.
Children born to unemployed or underemployed parents could be deprived of nutrition necessary early in life for a healthy head start with long-term benefits.
A healthy mother should at the least have a diversified food basket including fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat, and brown rice, going by WHO’s recommendations. But with the current trajectory, women of childbearing age suffering acute malnutrition could grow higher than seven percent.
Wasiu Afolabi, president, the Nutrition Society of Nigeria (NSN) said the war between Ukraine and Russia has further worsened the fragility created by the Covid-19 pandemic in food supply to many countries including Nigeria.
Interventions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through restriction of movement had earlier strained farming activities at the expected time in some areas. And while still ailing from that, the region of the world that plays a vital role in the production of grains, particularly wheat, has also blocked supply.
Russia and Ukraine supply 28 percent of globally traded wheat, 29 percent of the barley, 15 percent of the maize and 75 percent of the sunflower oil.
“If you look at the price of bread which has become a staple food for many homes, people cannot afford to buy it anymore. And the problem is that when a particular food is affected, other alternatives will also be affected because demand will shift from that one to other available foods,” Afolabi told BusinessDay.
The nutrition expert explained that the food supply to households will reduce and the most vulnerable people will get less. And when people get less food than they require for their daily living and it persists over time, it will lead to a deficiency of nutrients that is required for people to be healthy.
Ada Nwaeze, a registered dietician nutritionist also told BusinessDay that malnutrition is on the increase, particularly among the poor and is affecting both those who are underweight and overweight.
And besides the vulnerable, the few gains the country has achieved with food fortification could be at risk of being eroded again.
Nigeria recently achieved a high level of food fortification with more than 90 percent of the Nigerian market for salt, wheat flour, and sugar reached with essential micronutrients.
The rate of salt fortification with iodine was at 90 percent in 2021, with over 185 million accessing iodized salt. Fortification of edible oil nourished with vitamin A rose by 16 percent to 49 percent in 2021 from 33 percent in 2020, reaching 94 million Nigerians.
About 64 percent of Nigeria’s population, (134 million) were reached with wheat flour rich in vitamin A, vitamin B3, and iron in 2021 full year. This means malnutrition could rise even among those that are not in the vulnerable group.