Saturday, May 01, 2010

1 billion hungry, only tells part of the story

We are told that there are over a billion hungry people in the world, but that may not tell the whole story.

The figures compiled by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization are conservative so they don't get accused of overstating the problem. The 1.02 billion people only tells us how many are undernourished, it says nothing about the millions of people who are "malnourished;" those who do eat, but not have a full diet.

From the IPS, writer Paul Virgo tells us more about how the FAO compiles their statistics.

The first major problem is that the estimates for the food needed for minimum energy needs are based on the requirements for a 'sedentary lifestyle'. This suggests that many people are not counted as undernourished even though they are not getting enough calories to sustain a healthy, active working lifestyle.

"FAO's estimates are conservative in the sense that if we used higher energy requirements, more people would be counted as undernourished," David Dawe, a senior economist at the FAO told IPS.

Perhaps an even bigger issue is that, even if one accepts that the FAO's figure tells us how many people are 'undernourished', it still does not say how many poor people are 'malnourished' because they cannot afford an adequate diet.

The saying 'man cannot live by bread alone' is literally, as well as figuratively, true. A person might be able to meet their energy needs by filling up on staples such as rice or potatoes, but if they cannot afford to have any variety in their diet, they will not get key micronutrients such as iron, iodine, vitamin A and zinc, with dramatic effects for their health and ability to function.

The reference here is specifically to poverty-induced malnutrition. People in developing countries who eat so many calories that they are obese are also considered malnourished, as are people with illnesses that stop their bodies obtaining adequate nutrition from food, even if their food intake is satisfactory -- but these groups are not part of this analysis.

Figures released by UNICEF last year suggest that poverty-induced malnutrition, which is sometimes called 'hidden hunger' and can have irremediable consequences, especially for under-twos and the unborn children of pregnant sufferers, is an enormous problem. The U.N. children's agency says 129 million under-fives in developing countries are underweight and therefore undernourished. But the number of under-fives who are stunted because of inadequate diets, and therefore malnourished, is over 50 percent higher at 195 million.

"The estimated numbers of people who are iron or iodine deficient are actually much larger than the number of 'undernourished' in the sense of dietary energy deficiency," food security and nutrition specialist Doris Wiesmann told IPS.

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