November 12, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

Hidden Hunger Exposed

Hidden hunger was brought out into the open in a big way this week – and so was a promising solution.

As we have often noted, nearly one billion people suffer from a chronic lack of food – this is a visible hunger all too familiar to us from scenes of famine and food shortages.  But more than two billion people suffer from what is called hidden hunger – a chronic lack of micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc.  This under-nutrition isn’t as visible because the sufferers may be consuming enough calories; they may appear to be reasonably well fed.  But a lack of access to more nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and animal products leaves them deprived of vital nutrients that makes them vulnerable to blindness, increased risk of disease and premature death, and leaves countless children stunted mentally and physically.

But critical help appears to be right around the corner.  At a conference hosted by HarvestPlus this week in Washington DC, crop breeders, nutritionists and economists gathered to examine the potential benefits of biofortification, or boosting the nutritional aspects of staple crops.

At the vanguard of these efforts is the orange-fleshed sweet potato, high in provitamin A, which is already being planted by farmers and available in rural markets in Mozambique and Uganda.  In the next couple of years, crop breeders say, a multitude of other fortified crops will be ready to be deployed: beans with iron in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); pearl millet with iron in India; cassava with vitamin A in Nigeria and the DRC; maize with vitamin A in Zambia; rice with zinc in Bangladesh and India; wheat with zinc in India and Pakistan.

With the introduction of these crops in these locations, the scientists are hoping to show a positive impact on the nutrition of local residents, evidence that they hope will break down any remaining resistance of agriculture decision makers to encourage crop breeding for nutrition.

It was confounding to hear that this link between agriculture and nutrition has so long been missing – confounding because food production and nutrition seem to be a natural combination, essential allies in the war on hunger.  But the two have often been treated as separate academic and practical disciplines.  Nutrition has been seen as a health problem and food production as a matter for agriculture.  In governments around the world, nutrition has largely been a province of health ministries and crops have been the realm of the agriculture ministries.  To fight hunger, the goal of crop breeders has been to boost yields, not increase nutrition.  In farming terms, nutrition and agriculture have resided in separate silos.  When the two were brought together, those in agriculture voiced the worry that improving nutritional values of crops would lower the yields.

Now, after years of research, Howarth (Howdy) Bouis, director of HarvestPlus and a pioneer of biofortification, declared at the conference: “Evidence shows that there is no trade-off between high nutrient content and high crop yield.”

Howdy led a chorus of pleas at the conference that these be joined together.  His list of key challenges included: “Getting the agricultural sector to prioritize improving nutrition.  Getting the nutrition community to prioritize agriculture in order to improve nutrition.”

As the world faces the overarching challenge of doubling food production by 2050, it seems a matter of common sense to also make sure that that food is as nutritious as possible.  To attack both overt hunger and hidden hunger.

The importance of this dual front was clinically and emotionally emphasized by scientists from India and Bangladesh who pointed out that their countries were still heavily burdened with malnutrition even through their quantity of food production soared during the Green Revolution in the 1960s.  It was clear to them that growing more food alone isn’t enough to end hunger and malnutrition.

“Lack of food is a visible travesty.  Lack of nutrition is invisible,” said Meera Shekar, lead health and nutrition specialist at the World Bank.  “The big challenge is to make nutrition more visible.”

The Obama administration’s Feed the Future program, which seeks to end hunger in all of its forms through agriculture development, is attempting to do this.  And so is the First 1,000 Days initiative recently launched by the U.S. and Ireland and several humanitarian agencies; this initiative stresses the vital importance of nutrition for the health of mother and child from the time the child is conceived through the first two years of life (the first 1,000 days).  The impact of a lack of necessary micronutrients during that period will last a lifetime, often shortening the lives of mothers and robbing the children of the opportunity to reach their physical and mental potential.

Ambassador William Garvelink, the deputy coordinator of Feed the Future, told the gathering that food security must mean better access to better quality food.  “We are witnessing a revolution in our approach to nutrition,” he said.

He continued: “The momentum to link agriculture, research and nutrition across programs is greater than ever before.  We must capitalize on this energy.  The time has come for us to channel the powers of modern agricultural technology to reduce the single largest public health problem in the world: malnutrition.”

For many at the conference – and for billions of people around the world – the time for fortified crops can’t come fast enough.

“Move what we know to where it is necessary,” urged Ruth Oniang’o, a food science and nutrition advocate from Kenya.  “I am a grandmother five times, so I have a sense of urgency.  One more child dying anywhere because these products aren’t deployed is one child too many.”

Archive

| By Roger Thurow

Impatience

Bill Gates calls himself an “impatient optimist.”

Would that we all shared his optimism and, especially, his impatience.

| By Roger Thurow

Marching Forth

They are marching again in Alabama with no less passion than the civil rights campaigners of the 1960s.

| By Roger Thurow

Going Together

In the new initiative to end hunger through agriculture development, an old African proverb is lighting the way: If you want to go fast, go it alone.  If you want to go far, go together.

| By Roger Thurow

Beyond the Emergency

Before the calamitous earthquake, Haiti was in the news for another tremor: the global food crisis of 2008.

| By Roger Thurow

Unity of Purpose

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, stands as a monument to how one determined individual can make a huge difference in the fight against hunger.  But he often stressed that it took an army of individuals, with a unity of purpose, to win the war.

| By Roger Thurow

Can't Lead Abroad While Losing at Home

In 2003, while reporting in the famine fields of Africa, I met an American aid worker who suggested I expand my research on global hunger: “You should look into hunger in America, too,” she suggested.

| By Roger Thurow

A Hunger Czar Talks… and Talks

His travels may take him to Ethiopia, Malawi, Lesotho or to the far corners of Ireland.  His meetings may be with heads of state, parliamentarians, budgetary bean counters or with farmers and school children.  His missions may range from promoting new conservation tilling techniques to considering the role of breast pumps in improving infant nutrition in Africa.

| By Roger Thurow

From Words to Action: A Rwandan Beginning

They were listening in the hills of Rwanda a year ago when a new American president, this one with African lineage, took the oath of office.  Minutes into his inaugural address, Barack Obama stirred their hopes:

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

| By Roger Thurow

Why Not Hunger?

Given the carnage of the first decade of the 21st Century, the humanitarian front would seem an unlikely source for a beacon of light.  But here it is, shining through the gloom:

Where grassroots clamor is raised, wonders follow.

1,000 Days Project

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.


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?


Enough

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.


Multimedia

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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.

» Learn more.
» Order your copy of the book.

Books

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.

Learn more »

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?

Learn more »

EnoughEnough

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.

Learn more »