May 27, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Big Brains on Little Brains

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

Bill Gates, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah and World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran all talked about the impact of malnutrition and stunting on the children of the developing world, particularly Africa.  We are all familiar with the pictures of the outward manifestation of hunger, but we give little thought to the harm it causes to a young person’s ability to think.

The deficit of micro-nutrients in the diets of many people around the world is called “hidden hunger.”  Hidden, too, is the mental damage of hunger – the stunting of the development of the brain.

These three speakers brought it out into the open.

First, the USAID administrator highlighted the tragic loss of brain power.“Hunger,” Raj Shah said in his prepared remarks, “does more than upset our economic or political security. It upsets our conscience as a people.

“Thirty years ago, we thought stunting was simply a symptom of children who weren’t getting enough to eat – a physical manifestation of scarcity.

“About ten years ago, we started to get economic data that conclusively showed that a population too malnourished to work suffered long-term economic consequences. Individuals suffered a 10% reduction in lifetime earning potential, while countries saw 3% annual reductions in their GDP.

“Then, just recently, we began to see MRI scans of the brains of malnourished children, side-by-side with those who had been well fed. Clear in those images is the stark and permanent loss of individual human potential. We could begin to understand that a child suffering from malnutrition at a young age has diminished her lifelong potential before the majority of her life has even begun.”

Then, the co-chair of the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fielded a question about the broader impact of hunger.  “If you have malnutrition as a child, you never recover,” Bill Gates said.  He talked about children across Africa “being crippled in a way they will never fulfill” their potential.

The head of the World Food Program displayed the proof.  Josette Sheeran held up MRI scans of the brains of children, the malnourished beside the well fed.  The brain of the malnourished child, she indicated, showed distinct signs of underdevelopment.

She carries these images in her ever-present tote bag.  The bag also holds a red plastic cup, which has come to symbolize the WFP’s school feeding programs.  For several years, Sheeran has taken the cup with her wherever she goes, imploring her audiences to support WFP’s school feeding efforts by “filling up the cup” with donations needed to purchase and distribute the food.  And not just fill the cup with sufficient food, but with better, more nutritious food.

Last year, the U.S. and Ireland and a number of humanitarian agencies launched a campaign that carries the fight against malnutrition to pre-school children as well: “1000 Days: Change a Life, Change the Future – Partnering to Reduce Child Undernutrition.”  It is intended to lead a movement to improve child nutrition through programs targeted at the 1,000 days window of opportunity beginning with a woman’s pregnancy and continuing until a child is two years old.  These are formative years in the development of the brain.

We are talking here, literally, of food for thought.

“Yes,” Raj Shah continued in his symposium remarks, “the world must increase its productive yields over the next decades; that much is clear. But let us remember the true yields of food security. Let us remember the fundamental American value that says everyone should be given the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential to live a healthy, productive life.

“And the next time we debate the necessity of the investments we make in food security, let us remember what is truly lost when we turn away.”


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Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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