Malnutrition is not merely an issue of not having enough food. Nor is it necessarily a calorie distribution issue.
In 2017, 821 million people were malnourished, suffering from chronic deprivation of food. That was up from the previous year, when that number was 804 million. Since 2014, hunger has been steadily rising. Though we’re not yet up to the levels witnessed ten years ago, we certainly seem to be heading that way. For all that we have more resources, better technology, improved crop species and a plethora of chemicals at our disposal, something is clearly not right.
What’s going on?
In many cases, calories were simply insufficient. 50.5 million children were subject to wasting, another 150.8 million displayed stunted growth.
Access to adequate calories is not the only problem, though.
672 million adults were obese. That’s one in every eight adults. The highest proportion of those live in North America in low-income households. Meanwhile, 38.3 million children were overweight, or 5.6% of the global child population. 25% of those children were in Africa, 46% in Asia, again with a higher concentration in low-income households.
Many of these people are considered to be suffering from malnutrition, because their diet provides insufficient micronutrients— even where there is more than enough calories. According to the FAO, this “hidden hunger” comes about through the “nutrition transition”, where changes in lifestyle, food systems and eating habits result in undernutrition and nutritional deficiencies. During the first transition phase, the diet consists mainly of grains, tubers, vegetables, and fruits, with very little protein or fat. The absence of key macro and micronutrients in the diet leads to the next stage, increased consumption of cheap processed foods, high in both sugar and fats, resulting in obesity and increased undernutrition and nutritional deficiencies. In the final stage, the diet is dominated by processed foods high in fat and sugar. Overweight and obesity predominate.
Another interesting statistic: one in three women of reproductive age was anaemic. 35 countries had a prevalence of anaemia in women of reproductive age equal to or over 40%, mostly in central and west Africa and southern Asia, though countries in the middle east (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan) and South America (Guinea, Equatorial Guinea) also featured. In around half of all cases, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that anaemia results directly from dietary iron deficiency, the other half from various causes — deficiencies in micronutrients that facilitate iron absorption or an excess of phytate, which limits absorption, are two possible causes. Interestingly, anaemia has also been shown to co-exist with obesity, indicating that it’s not always simply a case of not having enough to eat but also, not having enough of the right kinds of things to eat.
Clearly, what we are dealing with is not just inadequate access to calories. It is also an inadequate access to nutritious calories.
As food production systems have become increasingly globalised and industrialised, agrobiodiversity, along with local knowledge and food production systems, has been lost. Human diets have become increasingly less diverse since the advent of agriculture 10 000 years ago, with a rapid decrease in diversity in the last 100 years.
75% of agricultural plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s; 30% of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction, with six species disappearing each month. Different plant species and different strains of the same plant species can differ up to a thousandfold in their nutritional content. Yet, of the 250 000–300 000 known edible plant species, humans utilise only 150–200 of these. 60% of energy from plants consumed globally comes from just three species — rice, maize and wheat.
Meanwhile, phytochemical, vitamin and trace element richness in fruits, vegetables and grains has declined by as much as 50% since the 1930s. The nutitional value of plant foods is expected to decrease further with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, including a decrease in protein concentration due to reduced nitrogen utilisation.
As we have lost agrobiodiversity, we have lost the ability to produce adequately nutritionally rich, diverse diets. On top of that, the reduced range of foods that we are producing are lower in nutritious value than they once were, and their nutritional value will continue to decrease in future years.
In addition, meat and dairy products — that have the potential to solve the problem of malnutrition in its various guises for its millions of sufferers — are too expensive for those who need them most.
Productivity growth in the agricultural sector averaged around 2.1% between 2003–2012. More recently, it slowed in response to reduced demand. Current global food production is more than sufficient to meet current global caloric needs, and will be in 2050, when we will have have over two billion more mouths to feed.
But will we produce enough nutrient-rich food to feed the future? That is another question entirely.