Malnutrition persists as more people go hungry

Food from the sea

Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio


One in nine people are hungry, stated the 2020 Global Nutrition Report.  That’s 820 million people worldwide.  Another alarming fact is that one in three people is overweight or obese.  In addition, an increasing number of countries have the “double burden” of malnutrition, obesity, and other diet-related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World has even heightened the problem.  “More people are going hungry,” it said. “Tens of millions have joined the ranks of the chronically undernourished over the past five years, and countries around the world continue to struggle with multiple forms of malnutrition.”

Most of those who are reported to be hungry come from Asia although it is also expanding fast in Africa, according to the most authoritative global study tracking progress towards ending hunger and malnutrition.

Across the planet, the report forecasts, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic could tip over 130 million more people into chronic hunger by the end of 2020. (Flare-ups of acute hunger in the pandemic context may see this number escalate further at times.)

The newest UN report is produced jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Five years after the world committed to end hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition, we are still off track to achieve this objective by 2030,” the heads of the five UN agencies wrote in the report’s foreword.

As progress in fighting hunger stalls, the report says the COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of global food systems – understood as all the activities and processes affecting the production, distribution and consumption of food.

Farming vs malnutrition

While it is too soon to assess the full impact of the lockdowns and other containment measures, the report estimates that at a minimum, another 83 million people, and possibly as many as 132 million, may go hungry in 2020 as a result of the economic recession triggered by COVID-19.

“Overcoming hunger and malnutrition in all its forms (including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity) is about more than securing enough food to survive: what people eat – and especially what children eat – must also be nutritious,” the report said. “Yet a key obstacle is the high cost of nutritious foods and the low affordability of healthy diets for vast numbers of families.”

The report presents evidence that a healthy diet costs far more than US$1.90 a day, the international poverty threshold. It puts the price of even the least expensive healthy diet at five times the price of filling stomachs with starch only.

Nutrient-rich dairy, fruits, vegetables and protein-rich foods (plant and animal-sourced) are the most expensive food groups globally, the report states.

“Malnutrition is a threat multiplier,” Dr. Cynthia Rozenzweig, author of the food security chapter in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on land and climate change, told Guardian.  “I think it has been ignored that people who are malnourished are likely to have lower immune systems.”

Fruits are good sources of vitamins and nutrients

Dr. Venkatesh Mannar, a special adviser on nutrition to the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, also deplored: “Poor diet and malnutrition is not a matter of personal choice.  Most people are not able to do this because of inequality of food systems.  They do not have access to a range of healthy food.  The interface between the food supply chain and consumer is inequitable.”

Dr. Mannar urged the international community to look at malnutrition alone but instead tackle it along with the COVID-19 pandemic.  “The crisis has highlighted the need to look at malnutrition in all its forms seriously, and we believe it can be done in tandem with tackling the pandemic,” the nutrition specialist suggested.

In the Philippines, malnutrition is one of the biggest health problems, particularly among the young ones. Based on a survey conducted by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) and released in 2015, chronic malnutrition is at its worst in 10 years and this may get worse unless necessary steps are soon taken.

The FNRI data showed chronic malnutrition rate among children aged zero to two was at 26.2%, the highest in 10 years. From 2013 to 2015, 10% of the stunting children increased to an average of 40%, and is expected to increase in the coming years.

Stunting, the worst form of malnutrition, has been a pervasive concern among Filipino children. In 2019, 28.8% of children below five years old experience malnutrition due to prolonged hunger while the stunting rate among children two years old and below is at 21.9% according to the FNRI report.

“Stunting is an irreversible condition which leads to the severe damage and impairment of a child’s physical and brain development, and adult productivity,” deplored Atty. Alberto Muyot, chief executive officer of Save the Children Philippines.

Some years back, the Philippines was listed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as one of the 13 low-income food-deficit countries in Asia (“those that do not have enough food to feed their populations and for the most part lack the financial resources to pay for imports”).

“In many developing countries, rapid population growth makes it difficult for agricultural production to keep pace with the rising demand for food,” wrote Don Hinrichsen in a report published by Population Reports.  “Most developing countries already are cultivating virtually all arable land and are bringing more marginal land under cultivation.”

Jacques Diouf, at the time when he was the director-general of FAO, echoed the same concern.  “Population growth continues to outstrip food availability in many countries,” he pointed out during the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome.

Hunger is the world’s “most solvable problem,” declared the UN World Food Program.  But in the Philippines, hunger persists across the country.

Growing vegetables

“A generation of Filipino children are already hindered from reaching their full potential if they are hungry and deprived of the nutrition they need to learn in school and stay active,” Senator Grace Poe said in a statement. “We must collectively work together to take care of our children and ensure that they are able to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.”

More than 2 billion people suffer from hidden hunger globally, and there is a ripple effect that has consequences for the entire population. “Hidden hunger” is caused by a lack of essential vitamins and minerals.

“Even if people have enough calories to eat, they can still suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ if their only food options do not contain the necessary micronutrients,” says Bev Postma, who has 25 years of experience as a policy expert in international food systems, nutrition and food security. – ###

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