Thu, Nov 06, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Rethinking the economics of hunger

The globe’s food supply has been constantly expanding, putting pressure on the world’s natural resources and environment, yet more than 2 billion people suffer from malnutrition. It is time to be smarter about food-production processes

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Illustration: Mountain People

The world has a nutrition problem. Though great strides have been made toward the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries, the problem remains persistent, pervasive and complex. After all, the issue goes beyond merely providing more food; effective efforts to reduce undernourishment must ensure that people have access to enough of the right types of food — those that give them the nutrients they need to live healthy, productive lives.

Since 1945, food production has tripled, and food availability has risen by 40 percent, on average, per person. Over the past decade alone, vegetable production in the Asia-Pacific region, where more than three quarters of the world’s vegetables are grown, increased by one quarter.

However, despite these gains in expanding the food supply, at least 805 million people still go hungry every day, of whom about 791 million live in developing countries. Many more go hungry seasonally or intermittently. And more than 2 billion people suffer from “hidden hunger” — one or more micronutrient deficiencies.

Hunger and undernourishment damage the health and productivity of adults, undermining their ability to learn and work. Moreover, they impede children’s physical and cognitive development, and leave them more susceptible to illness and premature death. Stunted growth due to malnutrition affects one in four children under the age of five.

Adequate nutrition is most vital during the first 1,000 days of life (from conception to a child’s second birthday). However, even after that, hunger and undernourishment continue to diminish children’s chances of surviving to adulthood, much less reaching their full potential.

Ironically, in many parts of the world, pervasive hunger coexists with rising levels of obesity. More than 1.5 billion people are overweight, with one third of them considered obese. These people are particularly vulnerable to non-communicable diseases like heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Contrary to popular belief, obesity is often related less to an overabundance of food than to inadequate access to affordable, diverse and balanced diets. The challenge facing the international community is thus to ensure adequate consumption of the right kinds of food.

This means developing food systems that are more responsive to people’s needs, particularly those of the socially excluded and economically marginalized. Mothers, young children, the elderly and the disabled are among the most vulnerable to the pitfalls of undernourishment, and should be given special attention in efforts to end food insecurity and undernourishment.

In order to ensure that today’s efforts benefit future generations, strategies to improve global food systems must emphasize environmental sustainability. Specifically, world leaders must reassess prevailing food-production processes, which often put considerable stress on natural resources by exhausting freshwater supplies, encroaching on forests, degrading soils, depleting wild fish stocks and reducing biodiversity. Making matters worse, the lack of adequate infrastructure for storing and transporting food to consumers contributes to massive losses.

Of course, it is essential to strike the right balance between producing enough nutrient-dense food and preserving the environment. Consider livestock production, which accounts for many foods — including milk, eggs and meat — that have enriched diets in developing countries and provide livelihoods for millions.

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