expert opinion

“Hidden hunger” – being full isn’t enough

November 1, 2011

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Prof. Dr. Konrad Biesalski, Director of the Food Security Center at the University of Hohenheim in Germany

“Victims of hidden hunger are primarily children and pregnant women. They may not show any external signs of deficiency, but the consequences are severe. There are countries where one in every three children under age five dies of illnesses that probably would not have been contracted without the so-called ‘hidden hunger’.

Of the almost seven billion victims worldwide, about a billion suffer from iron deficiency. The anemia resulting from it increases the risk of infection and is responsible for the high rate of maternal mortality. There are 250 million people, mostly children, who are undersupplied with vitamin A. It is the cause of creeping blindness in four million children. Another 500 million people have zinc deficiency. A UNICEF analysis state that of the 800,000 people who die annually from zinc deficiency, 450,000 are children. Two billion people do not get enough iodine from their food, which has negative consequences on intellectual development. Children under five and pregnant women are the primary victims. The lacking micronutrients have an essential influence on a child’s development both during pregnancy and after birth. High mortality rates of mothers during delivery, premature infant mortality rates, and especially the high mortality rates of children under five are also repercussions of hidden hunger.

The rising prices of grains, such as rice, wheat, corn, and barley, are largely to blame for the advancement of hidden hunger. Grains are staple foods in most countries, but foods that are important for survival must also contain enough micronutrients, especially vitamin A, iron, and zinc. Some such foods are animal products, fruits, and vegetables. However, rising grain prices force people to take these vital foods off their menus, since they only have enough money for grains. People with very low income spend up to 80% of their earnings on food. Grain products make up between 60 and 80% of the daily energy supply. Therefore, there is very little leftover to spend on other foods, especially when the prices increase. Acute hunger can be battled with a bowl of rice – not chronic hunger. Like other grains, rice contains few vitamins and only a handful of minerals and trace elements, e.g. iron and zinc. However, the human body does not absorb these micronutrients well from grain products.

The problem will probably lead to crisis. According to estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the climbing food prices have caused another 100 million people to starve; more than

10 million of which are children. Since the prices are now higher than in 2009, a further increase in the number of starving people is expected. As a result, we can no longer see world hunger as a mere supply problem. The assumption that hunger will go away on its own by increasing production is a fallacy. Even if we could manage, as has been posited time and time again, to provide every single adult person with 2,400 kilocalories per day, it would not solve the problem.

We must actively consider new approaches, such as the fortification or biofortification, i.e. the cultivation of species with more micronutrients, of staple foods. Furthermore, speculation with staple foods must stop and their prices must be kept as stable as possible. That way, people can afford to buy not only grains, but high quality products with adequate micronutrients, too. The technological and political battle of hidden hunger is one of the major challenges in securing nutrition for a growing world population.”

Hohenheim, October 2011