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

Remembering the Post-9/11 Promises to Raise Foreign Aid

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

| By Roger Thurow

Coping with Drought

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country.

| By Roger Thurow

Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

| By Roger Thurow

Rowing in the Same Direction

Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

| By Roger Thurow

Political Will

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

| By Roger Thurow

Countering Drought

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

| By Roger Thurow

Cool Beans

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.


| 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.

| By Roger Thurow

The Importance of Innovation

Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

| By Roger Thurow

Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

| By Roger Thurow

Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

| By Roger Thurow

Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

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 »