Why Hunger Amidst Plenty?

I had the pleasure of doing a keynote talk at the “Ending Global Hunger Conference” at the Center for Global Food Security of Purdue University . My talk was entitled “Why Hunger Amidst Plenty?” My slides are here.

The punchline of the talk was this: We are living in a complex world made up of multiple burdens of malnutrition. While the obstacles to address the burden are daunting for citizens, there are tools to solve it. We just need political will, global cooperation, and immediate action.

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The malnutrition burden is massive. But the story is mixed - there is the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s start with the good. Stunting is coming down - in some places quite fast - like Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Nepal. Also, the risk of dying from a famine has become much, much smaller than at any time in history. Then there is the bad. For the third year in a row, there has been a rise in world hunger. The absolute number of undernourished people has increased to nearly 821 million in 2017, from around 804 million in 2016. These are levels from almost a decade ago. Further, “hidden” hunger remains significant but is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know the state of micronutrient deficiencies, particularly among the nutritionally vulnerable populations, such as children under five years of age, women and adolescent girls. And now the ugly. Overweight and obesity is rising everywhere and among every stage of life. No country has stopped the trends we are witnessing.

The question remains why?

  • Why do we still have hunger & undernutrition?

  • Why are we not seeing improvements? And in some cases reversals of progress?

  • How did we get to this place of paradox: hunger & obesity?

  • What can we do about it?

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I argue that hunger is still rampant because of poverty, conflict change, conflict, poor infrastructure, unstable markets, food loss and waste, and periods of seasonal hunger in rural places.

But how did we get to this place of paradox? That is complex but in a nutshell, our lives and lifestyles are transforming as are our diets and food systems. Many in the world are now consuming sub-optimal diets, exercising less and hence are more sedentary, and these contribute to the risk of disease and death. At the same time, healthy diets are not accessible to all.

As a result, many people are now affected by both food insecurity and obesity at the same time.  Food-insecure populations, really no matter where they live, are subject to the same, but unique influences in trying to consume a healthful diet:

  • Limited resources and lack of access to healthy, affordable foods

  • Cycles of food deprivation and overeating

  • High levels of stress, anxiety and depression

  • Limited access to health care

  • Fewer opportunities for physical activity

  • Greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products

The question remains, what to do? There is no one simple measure that can successfully shift the burden at the national or global scale. Rather, a constellation of different approaches and strategies, operating across scales and supply chains, and targeted at different people and organizations will be required. I argue for 10 actions:

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  1. Care. We need governments, industry and citizens to care about their diets and their nutrition, climate change and food systems.

  2. Push for countries to develop a food systems policy. No country has implemented a full range of updated, comprehensive, and evidence informed strategies to encourage a healthier and more equitable food system.

  3. Consider the situation a “Syndemic” and take on triple duty actions.

  4. Consider options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Dietary, technological change on farms, and reductions in food loss and waste are critical to reduce environmental impacts of our food system on the planet.

  5. Don’t forget about who will continue to feed the world. As Ruth DeFries eloquently wrote: “Now we are transforming from farmers to urbanites. Our newest experiment-to feed massive numbers of people from the work of a few-is just beginning. The outcome is yet to be seen.” Who will feed us when the average age of the world’s farmer is 60?

  6. Invest in small and medium holder farmers. Smallholder farmers have more diversified landscapes, making important contributions to the overall dietary diversity for the world’s population. 53-81% of micronutrients in the food supply are produced by small and medium farms. These farms make up 84% of all farms and 33% of the land areas globally and are more predominant in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

  7. Maximize net increases of nutrition along value chains. Identify points in the chain that can be “leveraged for change.” Leverage points can cause nutrients to be lost or exit the value chain as well as enhance the nutritional value of select nutrient-rich foods.

  8. Engage and empower women in on- and off-farm opportunities. Women need social capital including information and access to new technologies and farming practices and tapping into social networks that may assist in times of hardship. Women need access to credit with greater ability to invest in infrastructure and to smooth consumption or production shocks. And last, we need to improve their human human capital and agency - give them opportunities for education, and increase their ability to get health and nutrition services.

  9. Help consumers navigate this complex web. Give them the information and knowledge the make healthy choices. Make them affordable, accessible and culturally appropriate. But consumers are super, duper confused

  10. Dig deeper. We must address the underlying social determinants that impact malnutrition. Every country is impacted by poverty but its determinants may be different, or the same…

Food bytes: Weekly nibbles from Feb 18 - Feb 24

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Since the publication of the Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems,” there have been some thoughtful critiques on the paper. Lawrence Haddad of GAIN and some other GAIN colleagues published what they felt were omissions but also the opportunities for more research, dialogue and debate. Over at the New Food Economy, Sam Bloch tried to eat the planetary health diet for one week. He struggled. He cooked almost all his meals, and he found the diet more expensive. I think he was a bit extreme, forgoing coffee and spices, which is not really recommended, but A effort in at least trying to take the lofty goals of the report and giving some practical insights into whether one can consume this diet on a daily basis. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. There are many attempts to ensure plant-based diets and vegan cuisine are tasty to our picky palates. Restaurants and food companies are trying new recipes and using new technology to ensure that vegetables make our mouths water just as much as those pavlov-dog-drooling juicy steaks do.

Another Lancet journal commission report was published last week on the “Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change.” What is a syndemic one might ask? It is a synergy of pandemics that co-occur in time and place, interact with each other, and share common underlying societal drivers. Oh. Sounds serious. Well, in this case, it is. The pandemics are climate change and malnutrition - that being undernutrition and obesity. All three affect most people in every country. They give this example:

“Food systems not only drive the obesity and undernutrition pandemics but also generate 25-30% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and cattle production accounts for over half of those. Car-dominated transportation systems support sedentary lifestyles and generate between 14-25% of GHGs. Underpinning all of these are weak political governance systems, the unchallenged economic pursuit of GDP growth, and the powerful commercial engineering of overconsumption. The outcomes of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change interact. For example, climate change will increase undernutrition through increased food insecurity from extreme weather events, droughts, and shifts in agriculture. Likewise, fetal and infant undernutrition increases the risk of adult obesity. The effects of climate change on obesity and vice versa are currently uncertain.”

The Commissioners argue that double and triple duty actions are necessary to address The Global Syndemic. This figure below shows some options of triple duty actions. Some are very similar to what was recommended in the EAT Lancet Commission like reducing meat consumption and more sustainable dietary guidelines. Seems, most scientists are somewhat on a similar page on these recommendations. They do rip into both governments and food and beverage industries for not governing and not having public health concerns in mind respectively.

Triple duty actions to address the “global syndemic”

Triple duty actions to address the “global syndemic”

Dark cuisine. Copyright: NYT

Dark cuisine. Copyright: NYT

Of course, as part of these global conversations is the issue of meat production and consumption and the potential future technologies that could save the planet, animals and humanity. One report just released argues that lab-grown meat could accelerate climate change, more so than current cattle production. Shwoops. Not sure about the authors assumptions, but they do acknowledge the limitations of their modeling of different types of gases and the energy calculations to come up with such a sweeping conclusion. The podcast Freakonomics breaks down the potential future of meat - weighing the pros and cons. It is worth a listen. One thing they discuss in the podcast that I had not heard of is “finless foods” - where fish are produced from stem cells. With 33% of fish stocks overly fished, this could be a game changer. That is, if people want to eat cultured meats and seafoods….

And speaking of weird science, and the future of food, ever heard of stargazy pie? It is a pie made up of herring, half buried in the pie with their heads and eyes peaking up from the buttery crust. Underneath is the rest of their bodies “leaching their brine in a rich custard, larded with bacon and hard boiled eggs.” Yummmm. Welcome to the world of ugly food and “dark cuisine.” These ugly food concoctions are highlighted in the New York Times Fashion section no less.

Food Bytes: Nibbles from the end of 2018

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

GLOBAL NUTRITION REPORT

The Global Nutrition Report was released this November. The news is not great. The report revealed that the global burden of malnutrition is unacceptably high and now affects every country in the world. But it also highlighted that if we act now, it is not too late to end malnutrition in all its forms. In fact, we have an unprecedented opportunity to do so. Steps have been taken in understanding and addressing malnutrition in all its forms, yet, the uncomfortable question is not so much why are things so bad, but why are things not better when we know so much more than before? Check it out and read all the deets.


CAN OUR DIETS SAVE THE PLANET?

There is much more to discuss than just a “byte” but we published a Nature article showing that what you eat does matter if you want to save the planet. Beef is the big outlier. Those people or in aggregate, countries who eat a lot of red meat (hello the lovely US of A), could dramatically reduce green house gas emissions stemming from agriculture. Refute the science all you want livestock industry, but the science is pretty clear. A lot of press was written up on the paper, and the Guardian does a nice summary.

ROTTEN

Netflix released a food docuseries last year entitled Rotten, and I finally got around to watching all 6 episodes. It is actually quite good, and I think, quite unbiased (as opposed to many food documentaries). It delves into aspects of different food supply chains and presents a slighly terrifying picture. Like how must honey we buy is adulterated and not really honey at all, food allergies that kill, the collapsing/ed cod industry, the underworld of garlic and big corporations out to squeeze the smallholder, and it goes on and on. The show exposes the complex, corrupt nature of our global food system and the many industries feeding that, leaving you questioning where your food comes and who controls it. Good stuff. Hope there is a season 2.