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The World’s Biggest Crisis – Food, Hunger and Malnutrition

Testing for malnutrition, northern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: andré thiel. flickrIn October 2011, the population of the world increased to over 7 billion people. Out of these 7 billion, 3 billion eat either too little, too unhealthily or too much. It is quite the damning record. Despite the advancements made in the past hundreds if not thousands of years, the world has simply been unable to tackle the ever present problem of hunger. Now, well into the 21st century, the world is facing the growing problem of ‘hidden hunger’ in the form of chronic malnutrition, the world’s silent killer.

World hunger has always existed. However, it has only been in the past fifty years or so that greater attention has been paid to this complex issue. Up until the 1980s, the prevailing idea to end world hunger was quite simplistic; you grew more and more crops. If these crops failed in developing countries, then rich Western countries were ready and willing to send food. This approach did not work. The Bangladesh famine of 1974 and the Ethiopian famine of 1984 completely undermined this approach. These were famines of biblical proportions and took place in countries where food was in fact readily available. 

Famines such as those in Bangladesh and Ethiopia reinforced Amartya Sen’s views. Sen, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, stated that what matters most with food is not the overall supply but rather individual access. And so, from the mid-1980s onwards, the dominating theory to prevent famines from taking place was to help people to obtain food more easily.  In order for this to come about, poverty had to be reduced and agricultural markets had to be made more efficient. Yet the food price crisis of 2007 and 2008 revealed the limitations of such an approach. Prices of many stable crops doubled in a year with millions going hungry in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Haiti. The world remained bad at fighting hunger.

A young boy holds his malnourished brother, Calcutta, India. Photo: Calcutta Rescue. flickrThis brings us to the year 2012. One of the concerning issues now is the fact that even in countries where there is enough food, people do not seem healthier. To add to the 1 billion without enough calories, another 1 billion are malnourished; they lack essential micro-nutrients. As well as this, another 1 billion people are malnourished in the sense that they eat too much and are obese.  In total, there are currently 3 billion living in the world that have nutrition problems.

As a result of these statistics, greater emphasis is now being placed on the importance of nutrition. This has led to a recent shift in the world’s approach to fighting hunger. Governments, NGOs and supranational organisations are beginning to pay increasing attention to the idea that the world should focus on supplying micro-nutrients such as iron and vitamins to people in developing countries rather than simply providing extra calories and food. It appears that the world has finally taken note of the silent killer, chronic malnutrition.

Every day, 7,000 children die from a lack of nutritious food, accounting for over a third of all children’s deaths in the world. While it may not be immediately obvious that malnutrition is the direct cause of death, poor nutrition is nearly always the underlying reason. Hence, the term ‘hidden hunger’ as the effects of malnutrition aren’t always visible. Once more, it is children who are the most vulnerable. As food prices continue to rise, there are an increasing number of families that are unable to afford to feed their children with good, nutritious food. 

Even children that suffer from malnutrition but manage to survive face numerous devastating consequences for the rest of their lives. Many become physically and mentally stunted while others face a lifetime of ill-health and abject poverty. In a recent report carried out by the charity Save the Children, it was found that around half a billion children could grow up physically and mentally stunted over the next fifteen years as a result of malnutrition. This is a great cause for concern, especially in countries such as India where 43% of children are malnourished while a further three out of four are anaemic. 

Governments in both the developed and developing world are at last recognising the need to improve nutrition worldwide. The issue of food security and malnutrition was added to the agenda of the G20 summit that took place last year. With the global population expected to increase from 6.9 billion to 9 billion by 2050, the problem of feeding the world with healthy, nutritious food is alarming governments.

The world has always failed to adequately tackle the problem of hunger in the past. However, it now appears that world leaders are at last facing up to the challenge of chronic malnutrition. If developing countries and their citizens are not to be left behind, as they so often are, now is the time for the world to act in order to eradicate ‘hidden hunger’ once and for all.

BRIAN BOLGER

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