Food security and better diet

The world has achieved numerous developmental successes. Poverty has been eradicated in some parts of the world and drastically reduced in others (e.g. China and India). Impressive results have also been achieved in global health and disease prevention as well as in many other areas of development which I have discussed in this column.

However, despite such successes, including major strides in food production, the persistence and scale of world hunger is astonishing. According to recent estimates, more than 820 million people in the world suffer from daily hunger and this number has been slowly increasing in the past three years. And almost 2 billion people face some form of food insecurity – i.e. without access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

Even though Asia, in particular South Asia, predominates, more than 20% of the world’s population suffering from undernutrition lives in Africa. While almost 20.5 million babies (one in seven newborns) suffer from low birthweight, 149 million children continue to be stunted. In addition to undernutrition, the world is also facing the growing threat of overweight and obesity, which continue to rise fast in all world regions and is assuming epidemic proportions.

In recent months, there has been an increased focus on improving diets. Nutritionists have for long encouraged us to reduce meat consumption while diversifying our dietary habits to include more vegetables, pulses, fruits and fish. The advice coming out of recent research reports is that we must all cut down on red meat consumption.

But this has not gone down well in many European countries, where some believe such advice infringes on the personal freedom to choose what one prefers to eat. Even in Africa, there has been a growing discourse on the need to improve diets. Considerable media attention was generated when the vice-president of Zambia recently urged her fellow citizens to improve their eating habits by not relying exclusively on maize meal.

Although this call to change dietary habits was primarily motivated by food shortages in the country following lack of adequate rainfall, the overreliance on highly processed maize (lacking in vital nutrients) sold in large parts of Africa has long worried experts. Even when sorghum, rice and millet are cultivated, local cultural practices continue to prevent their increased consumption.

Some countries such as South Africa have begun fortifying processed maize meal with vitamins and minerals, but such measures appear more the exception than the rule. And even if such maize is available in urban supermarkets, they are out of reach for most rural inhabitants. Perhaps the great barrier to better diet is poverty.

The high market prices of meat and fish typically prevent people living in poverty from diversifying their diets.

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