This policy brief — one of a series published by the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN) — highlights the links between environmental change and malnutrition, and argues that traditional knowledge can guide sustainable solutions.

Environmental changes — including overpopulation, loss of biodiversity, climate change, urbanisation and higher pesticide use — often increase malnutrition.

Reduced access to bioresources can cause a lack of protein and micronutrient deficiencies. Growing reliance on processed foods or a narrow species base similarly reduces nutrient intake and increases the risk of infectious disease.

And environmental contamination through industrial and agricultural chemicals can compromise people's nutritional status either directly or through changes in diet.

Food-based strategies are essential to tackle malnutrition and help vulnerable populations cope with environmental change. Genetic modification, crop diversification and soil management can improve access to vital micronutrients.

More research is needed to identify nutritious crop varieties and analyse indigenous and wild species for their nutritional content. In particular, maintaining genetic diversity within home gardens and local agroecosystems can help improve nutrition.

Involving local communities in activities that combine nutrition research and resource management is especially important. Traditional knowledge can help inform efforts to improve nutrition — indigenous communities often satisfy their nutritional needs through unique human–environment relationships.

For example, dryland pastoralists who rely on animal protein and fat as primary food sources have adapted specialised preparation techniques and use wild plants to ensure they consume essential vitamins and minerals. Nutritional research can help identify whether such practices could be appropriate elsewhere.

Link to full policy brief from the UN SCN

This policy brief was written by Timothy Johns, director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples, Nutrition and Environment at McGill University in Canada, and Pablo B. Eyzaguirre, senior scientist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome.

Link to full series of policy briefs from the UN SCN

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