We often associate food insecurity with a lack of calories. This is its classic and most obvious form. In the most extreme cases, a lack of calories can mean severe hunger or even starvation.
Yet sometimes people get plenty of calories and not enough nutrients. This is a less obvious form of food insecurity. Some call it “hidden hunger” and it poses incredible challenges.
Malnutrition stunts growth. It hurts cognitive development in children. It darkens futures.
Fortunately, technological advances in agriculture may help provide a solution.
The fundamental challenge of malnutrition is that people don’t always want to buy and eat the food that’s best for them. Their first and last impulse is to want food that’s cheap, tasty and easily available. Nutrition has little or nothing to do with the choices they make when they shop. This is especially true in developing countries, where money and access to food are limited.
Here in Kenya, I see the problem of malnutrition regularly. Fruit should be a part of everyone’s diet. But people skip it all the time, especially when it’s out of season and perceived as pricey. The problem is most severe in the urban slums and many rural districts of the country, notably Samburu and Turkana, and the North Eastern districts of the country.
Around the world, malnutrition may affect as many as 2 billion people. It has almost certainly grown worse because of the global spike in food prices.
The Economist recently described “the bad diet of the poor” as “one of the world’s neglected scourges.” Everybody needs a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, but several types are commonly in short supply. Iron is necessary for a functional immune system, but more than half the women in India and 40 percent of the women in Indonesia don’t consume enough. Zinc contributes to the brain’s functioning and an estimated 400,000 people die each year because they don’t take in a minimal amount.
Vitamin A helps the body protect its organs but half a million children go blind each year because they lack this simple ingredient in their diets. In sub-Saharan Africa, 43 million children under the age of 5 are at constant risk.
The world must grow more food simply to feed itself–but it also must grow better food so that people may thrive.
Farmers in Kenya and Uganda have responded by raising orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, whose rich nutrients improve the health of women and children almost immediately.
Around the planet, farmers would like access to the best technologies for fighting malnutrition. Widespread approval of golden rice, a biotech crop, would combat vitamin A deficiencies. So would the advent of biofortified cassava, turning a staple food crop for 250 million sub-Saharan Africans into an arsenal of carotenoids that boost vitamin A intake. If scientific researchers can discover how to switch the color of vitamin A-enriched corn from yellow to white, farmers will find a strong market for it.
As a farmer and an educator, I plan to contribute to this process by identifying and working with partners to establish the Center for Food Security and Enterprise Development at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Our goal is to offer food-security skills training for farmers, suppliers, marketers, and technical service providers. We plan to create partnerships with universities in North America and Europe.
Professors at Iowa State University recently used biotechnology to increase the protein content of soybeans. These are exactly the sorts of advances we hope to achieve in Kenya.
Winning the war against malnutrition will require the creative efforts of everyone in the food chain, from the experts who develop cutting-edge technologies to the farmers who plant the seeds and harvest the crops to consumers who must educate themselves about the benefits of a proper diet. Governments also have a key role to play–they must allow innovation to spread, unchecked by anti-scientific fear mongering.
Above all, it will take a determination to fight hunger in all of its forms–and to deploy every weapon that 21st-century technology can afford us.
Gilbert Arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.