Thursday, March 1, 2012

March: Poverty and Nutrition

It has been well established that our planet produces enough food for all of our seven billion plus humans. If you take the number of calories produced and divide by the number of people, there are more than enough calories available to satisfy the requirements of everyone. The fact that many people in the world are malnourished is due, then, to a problem of distribution. While many attempts are made to improve the distribution of the food supply, both by governments and NGOs (Non-governmental organizations), many people worldwide do not get the nutrition they require to function properly. The United Nations estimates that more than one billion people suffer from hunger.

The latest edition of the magazine Foreign Policy is devoted entirely to food: “Inside the geopolitics of a hungry planet.” I highly recommend this issue to anyone interested in understanding more about the enormously complex issue of food. Enormously complex? Surely the solution to hunger is simple: “give poor people access to more food!” The articles in Foreign Policy point out just how wrong that simple solution may be.

Sad experience has demonstrated that handing out food to impoverished people creates a dependency on the handouts and actually destroys whatever local agricultural production exists. Even providing seed and agricultural implements is risky, since that, too, creates a dependency. On the other hand, letting people starve while they figure out how to feed themselves sustainably is not a humane option, especially in regions of the world where agriculture is either impossible or extremely risky.

There’s another interesting complexity to the problem as well. Experiments and studies in various regions of the world have shown that when malnourished people are given access to cheaper food or more food, they actually end up with less nourishment. How is this possible? The magazine cites a couple of examples. In China, people who subsisted on rice (in the south) or noodles (in the north) were given subsidies to allow them to buy more of these staples. Instead, the study revealed that they actually bought less rice and noodles with their increased buying power, and purchased tastier foods rather than more food, thereby continuing to be malnourished… but presumably happier about it.

In India, while wealth has increased per capita at a staggering rate over the past decade or two, the caloric intake of the average Indian has actually declined! There are many possible explanations for this, but the fact serves to point out the complexity of the problem.

A Moroccan labourer living in a mud-floored single room hut, subsisting on one or two meals a day at a level of nutrition that is well below accepted limits for malnourishment, told the authors of one of the articles that his television and cell phone were more important than food! Rural Indians starve themselves for years in order to save up for a lavish, extravagant wedding for their children.

It’s fine to tell someone that statistics collected over many years clearly show that if she eats better her children will be born healthier, she will have more energy to do better work, and her quality of life will improve… over a decade or so. But faced day to day with supplying food to her family, she is unlikely to think in the long term and will opt for more immediate gratification, whether that means buying meat instead of rice or saving up for a TV instead of buying nourishment that might have a positive effect in ten or twenty years. Can people really be blamed for skimping on already meager nourishment and opting instead for temporary escape from grinding poverty?

The answer to the problem of world hunger is as complex as the problem itself, but can be summed up in one word: education. When people understand that there is a direct relationship between getting enough of the right food and health and prosperity… even though that direct relationship may take years to reveal itself… only then can efforts to feed the poorest and most malnourished begin to have an effect. And the challenge of educating the poor to make better food choices is not limited to the third world.