Imperial College London

Hunger, poverty and disease: Tackling the triple burden of malnutrition


Half a globe filled with fruit and vegetables

Imperial’s Global Development Hub brought together world-leading experts to share insights on how to tackle malnutrition worldwide.

To mark World Food Day, Imperial College London’s Global Development Hub event brought together leading experts to debate how national governments and the international community should focus efforts to improve nutrition and build resilience.  

Eradicating hunger and malnutrition is one of the great challenges of our time. Today, the World Food Programme estimate that 690 million people around the world will go to bed on an empty stomach. 

To break the cycle between hunger and poverty, food is not enough. Providing food assistance in an emergency can save lives, but the right nutrition at the right time can also help change lives and break the cycle of poverty. 

A growing body of research finds that major food system changes have led the poorest countries to have high levels of overweight and obesity along with undernutrition. Persistent undernutrition and escalating overweight and obesity coexist within countries, communities, households, and individuals. The pandemic is an additional threat to food systems. 

Codeveloping solutions with in-country partners 

Guests were welcomed to the Global Development Hub by Professor Maggie Dallman, Vice-President (International) and Associate Provost (Academic Partnerships) at Imperial. She said:  “Through equitable partnerships and innovative education programmes, Imperial’s Global Development Hub is playing a key role in bringing together Imperial’s world-leading STEM expertise with industry partners, practitioners and policymakers around the world. 

“Working together, we can maximise our global impact to achieve the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals by co-developing solutions with in-country research partners and stakeholders.” 

Professor Gary Frost, head of Section for Nutrition Research at Imperial and lead for the Centre for Translational Nutrition and Food Research, chaired the discussion, stating that World Food Day is critically important to highlight the need to respond to key emerging global challenges in nutrition, food, climate and health. 

“One of the world’s largest solvable problems”  

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, saving lives in emergencies and using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change.  

Amir Mahmoud Abdulla is the Deputy Executive Director of the WFP and a graduate of Imperial. He said: “In today's world of plenty there is enough food produced to feed everyone on this planet. […] Hunger is one of the world’s largest solvable problems and should be a thing of the past.”  

Amir discussed conflict and insecurity as being some of the key drivers of hunger that exacerbate weaknesses in food systems and supply chains. He said: “Without peace and stability, we cannot hope to end hunger. The converse is true – addressing hunger can be a foundation for stability and peace.”  

Amir Mahmoud Abdulla
Amir Mahmoud Abdulla speaking at the event

The WFP is calling for coordinated global climate action at the upcoming COP 26 conference, to urgently address the challenges of the climate crisis and reduce its impact on hunger. Amir spoke about the three words shaping climate action for the WFP – Restore, Anticipate and Protect: Restoring degraded ecosystems that can form natural shields against climate hazards; anticipate climate hazards before they turn into disasters; protect the most vulnerable with safety nets and insurance against these climate extremes.  

He added: “I can’t think of a better place to start this RAP revolution than here at Imperial College London. I’m confident that many of you researching new technologies, teaching and empowering the generation that can make the Sustainable Development Goals a reality, and will help to solve the challenges and problems that unfortunately older generations of alumni like me are leaving you.” 

Improving educational outcomes through health and nutrition 

Dr Lesley Drake, Executive Director of the Partnership for Child Development (PCD) at Imperial, spoke about how messages are aligned between Imperial and the WFP. The Partnership for Child Development, led by Dr Drake, aims to improve educational outcomes through health and nutrition. The partnership serves to provide the demand-driven evidence base to governments, primarily in Africa, to inform how to move forward with policy and programming at scale.  

Dr Drake emphasised the importance of moving the focus from emergency relief and aid to development and progression. She cited the example of a project in Nigeria, where during the pandemic, lesson plans and healthy meals were dropped off at students’ houses each morning by teachers, and the completed schoolwork and empty plates collected from the day before. This kept the schoolchildren learning, provided them with healthy meals and additionally kept local farmers in their contracts to supply food. 

She said: “What the Partnership for Child Development has been working with WFP on is providing the evidence and stating what needs to be provided to policymakers and the programme influencers to make sure that we don’t lose this generation.” 

Sustainable food production 

Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organisation (WHO) discussed the role they play in tackling malnutrition. Their role is to identify nutrition challenges all over the world, describe their occurrence and monitor their progress. They then look at the potential options and cost effectiveness of these, then provide support to countries on their implementation.  

Dr Branca said: “At the heart of this is to have a diet which is healthy, a diet which is made of safe food and is sustainably produced. The element of sustainability has become more and more important and sustainable food production can be a solution to the climate crisis we’re in.”  

The Global Development Hub brings together Imperial College London’s expertise to maximise the global impact of our world-leading research, education and innovation, engage with the United Nations Sustainable Agenda 2030, and work with some of the most vulnerable and marginalised in societies where multiple global challenges are acutely concentrated. 

The panel discussion and Q&A can be watched in full on the College's YouTube channel.


Joanna Wilson

Joanna Wilson
Communications Division

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Global-health, Food-security, Diet, Sustainable-Development-Goals, International, Africa, Sustainability, Comms-strategy-International-university, Health-policy, Global-challenges-Health-and-wellbeing
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