July 2, 2015

Food Security from a Micro Perspective: Why Bigger Isn't Always Better

Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series

By Elise Ellinger, BS in Human Nutrition and International Development Economics, Incoming Master’s in Public Policy student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and a 2015 Next Generation Delegate.
 
As a student of Nutritional Science and International Development Economics, I had the opportunity to study food security across the social and natural sciences. Taking courses in International Development often involved analyzing “big picture” policy perspectives. Whether learning about economic theory or the historical origins of a nation, these courses were influential in grasping the cause of, and potential solutions to, underdevelopment. Nutrition coursework, however, took the alternative approach. I learned about DNA and cell structure and slowly moved on to biochemical pathways and tissue function. These courses were necessary in understanding the intricacies of human physiology and its reliance on proper nutrients.
 
Despite the necessity of both of these disciplines to address public health issues, I noticed a disconnect between the two approaches in the field. The gap was particularly salient when I conducted an experiment with my undergraduate advisor, Juan Andrade, fortifying milk with iron in Honduran schools. Through the federal School Feeding Program supplemented by WFP projects, each child in public schools receives a cup of milk along with their lunch. However, malnutrition rates in the country still reach a high of 48.5 percent in rural areas. One micronutrient deficiency that is especially important to address for young children is iron. Iron deficits early in life can lead to permanent physical and mental delays. Our research team sought to combine the milk program with iron fortification to mitigate these effects.
 
I began in the lab by experimenting with various forms of powdered iron, but each variety had significant flaws. Some iron forms do not solubilize well into liquids like milk, and instead sink to the bottom. This is problematic for serving in a school setting as the first child in the lunch line may receive no iron in their milk, while the last in line could be over-supplemented. Additionally, some forms of iron gave the milk an orange tint and a metallic taste—neither of which is appealing to children. Lastly, iron is biochemically inhibited in the body by other minerals commonly found in milk, specifically calcium. The best choice for iron fortification would be a lipid encapsulated source that would blend well with milk and cause fewer color and sensory changes. However, the price tag on this iron source was entirely unrealistic for a government or non-profit budget.
 
This is a single example from my research experience of how a ‘big picture’ idea may not coincide with the optimal strategy from the ‘micro’ level. This balance of micro and macro programming was evident in the presentation at this year’s Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, DC. Presenters at the Symposium not only noted the importance of the quantity of food available worldwide, but also the quality and nutritional value. One panel I found particularly intriguing was ‘A Health Sensitive Food Supply’, featuring nutrition experts Shawn Baker of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Richard Greene of USAID. Both spoke on the importance of addressing micronutrient deficiencies, specifically Vitamin A fortification. As a student of nutrition, I have an appreciation for the necessity and complexity of this task. Vitamin A is vital for eyesight, and essential for a healthy immune system and cellular development. However, the molecular compound that composes the nutrient is sensitive to light and heat, making storage conditions in tropical areas difficult. Additionally, the compound is best absorbed in the presence of dietary fat or within animal sources—an expensive grocery item for poor households. Supplementing malnourished communities with Vitamin A may be desirable from a “big picture” perspective, but Baker and Greene, along with the other nutrition professionals at the Symposium, understand the obstacles to achieving this goal. Including economic considerations in the conversation on appropriate nutrient delivery is certainly required for progress toward food security.
 
Approaching micronutrient deficiencies as a nutritional scientist, economist and policy analyst creates a plethora of questions. What food vehicle for delivering micronutrients is not only nutritionally viable, but culturally appropriate? Is a program sustainable as well as cost effective? Are interventions data-driven and regularly monitored and evaluated? Making progress towards a food secure world requires an interdisciplinary perspective, which fortunately was front and center of the Symposium’s presentations.
 
References:
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The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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