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Food security

Not enough for a healthy life

by Sabine Balk

In brief

Staples such as rice do not contain important ­micronutrients: woman in West Bengal.

Staples such as rice do not contain important ­micronutrients: woman in West Bengal.

It is estimated that more than 800 million people in the world still do not get enough to eat. Malnutrition compounds the problem. Those who suffer from it do not necessarily have an inadequate calorie intake, but their diet does not provide the vitamins and nutrients they need.

No one whose calorie intake is below the daily minimum can lead a healthy and productive life, Klaus von Grebmer, emeritus scientist from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), spells out clearly. But he also points out a less visible but equally devastating problem: malnutrition. It can impair physical and mental development, undermine personal productivity and even cause death.

According to estimates, some 2.5 billion people do not have an adequate vitamin intake. For this reason, at least 10 % of the world’s children under five are underweight, and 30 % are stunted. Von Grebmer believes that this hidden hunger will not be eradicated unless the public understands the issue. Why does malnutrition exist? What strategies and action can help solve the problem? Experts discussed these questions at an international conference organised by the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart in March.

Rehana Salam from the Aga Khan University in Karachi has assessed whether malnutrition could be countered by adding vitamin powders – so-called micronutrient powders (MNPs) – to local foods. The findings from various countries are mixed. According to Salam, MNPs reduce anaemia and improve haemoglobin levels among women and children, but have no impact on children’s weight, height and development. The researcher thus concludes that any policy of adding MNPs needs to be carefully considered in advance.

Hilary Creed-Kanashiro of the Instituto de Investigación Nutricional in Lima reports that vitamin deficiency is a major problem in Peru. Half of all children between six months and three years of age are anaemic. The government tries to encourage people to eat nutritious foods, especially animal proteins, and to add MNP as well as iron to their meals. However, anaemia figures show little change. Creed-­Kanashiro believes that it is essential to change Peruvian eating habits. At present, children in rural communities are not fed meat until they are nearly one year old because meat is considered hard to eat. Acceptance of multivitamin powders is also poor because they are seen as an “alien” product. In Creed-Kanashiro’s view, healthcare workers must be trained and people’s culture must be taken into account.

Sweta Banerjee of the Delhi office of Welthungerhilfe, a German civil-society organisation, considers inequality of access to food, education and healthcare major reasons for malnutrition. Structural change is necessary, she argues. In India, Banerjee sees the main problem in the low status of women and certain ethnic groups. And that, she pointed out, is precisely the problem addressed by the Fight Hunger First-initiative launched in India in 2011 by Welthungerhilfe and ten local partners.

Due to run for six years in the poorest parts of India, the programme supports the efforts of village and school organisations and raises awareness for nutrition. It is still too early to present results, Banerjee says, but preliminary findings are very encouraging. Villagers have been made aware of entitlements, community groups have been trained, farming methods have been demonstrated and village planning has been implemented. Thanks to the initiative, many farmer groups have been formed, women have been empowered and childcare knowledge has been imparted.

One major issue at the Hidden Hunger Congress was the role of the private sector in helping to eliminate undernourishment and malnutrition. Some argue that public-private partnerships (PPPs) will deliver additional expertise, resources and money. On the other hand, many civil-society organisations and government agencies distrust the private sector. Manfred Eggersdorfer of DSM Nutritional Products, a leading manufacturer of food supplements, sees considerable scope for discussing PPP involvement in solving the issue of nutrition. With the right strategy, he says, PPPs could make a difference in developing countries.

Sabine Balk

2nd International Congress Hidden Hunger:


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