expert opinion

Hidden hunger

April 1, 2013

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Prof. Dr. Hans Konrad Biesalski, Director of the Institute for Biological Chemistry and Nutrition and Managing Director of the Food Security Center at the University of Hohenheim, Germany

“Hidden hunger is a global problem. The hunger is hidden because it is often over-looked due to an incorrect definition of hunger. To this day, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations approaches the documentation of and fight against world hunger in a purely quantitative way. They believe that enough calories will solve the problem for everyone. The three staple foods – rice, corn, and wheat – today compose about 80 percent of the daily calorie intake of a third of the world’s population, but contain hardly any vital micronutrients. The consequences of this miscalculation are disastrous: Years of inadequate intake of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements weaken the body so much that those affected eventually cannot even survive a short-term food shortage. Starvation deaths are only the tip of the iceberg. Behind every starving child are ten malnourished children. However, these children often do not starve, but die of diseases caused by their malnutrition.

Malnutrition begins in the womb and negatively affects a child’s development. On average, about 130 chil-dren die every 20 minutes around the world as a direct or indirect consequence of under- or malnutrition, most of them in developing countries. The most widespread deficiencies are of vitamin Azinciron, and iodine. Among young women, hidden hunger and especially iron deficiency, in addition to the lack of care during and after childbirth, is a cause of high maternal mortality. Premature births and very low birth weights are also frequent. A poor vitamin A supply in the mother inhibits a child’s lung development, and an iron deficiency provides favorable conditions for all kinds of infections in the first days of life. Up to half a million children every year go blind before they reach age two. A further 14 million children suffer from vision loss with the potential to go blind. The reason for this is chronic deficiency of vitamin A. Zinc deficiency weakens the immune system. It is indirectly responsible for a substantial part of global morbidity and leads directly to two million deaths per year. An additional one to two billion people around the world suffer from iron-defi-ciency anemia and a yet far higher number are at risk. This deficiency limits the growth of children and inhibits immune response. Iron deficiency is also associated with a shortfall in mental abilities. This has life-long consequences that are very difficult to compensate. Affected children lag behind, not just physically but also mentally; they often start school later, are often ill and, as adults, earn on average 20 percent less than people who received adequate nutrition in childhood. These people are stuck in poverty for their whole lives and are dependent on welfare benefits. Hidden hunger thus causes enormous societal costs year after year – worldwide up to 25 billion dollars annually –, it paralyzes entire states, can mitigate economic development and, in some cases, even make it quite impossible.

Poverty and chronic malnutrition are inextricably linked and, in questioning the reasons for hidden hunger, one needs to know what causes poverty in developing countries. The main reasons to note are:

1) Food price increases due to the production of biofuels and their funding through government subsidies, due to specula-tion on commodities markets, and due to climate-related decline in yield development of rice and wheat. 

2) Corrupt governments that illegally sell small farmers’ land to banks, insurance companies, corporations, and even entire states for the cultivation of biofuels and animal feed (land grabbing). 3) Climate change: summers are getting hotter and drier all over the world. This has particularly serious consequences where only a little rain falls anyway. Yield losses are the result. These in turn lead to global price increases. Mea-sures that could be used to fight hidden hunger would therefore include improving agricultural technology, farming methods, and seeds; improving fair trade conditions in global markets; as well as securing the food supply and its nutritional value and the equitable distribution of food.

However, it is not just developing countries that are affected by hidden hunger, but also, with increasing poverty, more and more developed nations are affected as well. In these cases, food may well be abundant, but more and more people can no longer afford a continuously balanced diet. The scarcer the socio-econo-mic resources, the worse the food. Children living in poverty and their mothers, particularly, are the most common victims of hidden hunger. According to a UNICEF comparative study, some 30 million children grow up in relative poverty in the 35 richest countries in the world. In Germany, for example, up to 16 million people live below the poverty line, including 1.2 million children. Regarding the question of how balanced the diet of children from socially disadvantaged groups is, there are generally no national studies. This is not a policy issue in the German Länder because that which is hard to believe surely can’t be true. Depending on the age of the child, a balanced diet with all necessary nutrients costs between three and six euros per day per child. Because healthy foods with sufficient vital nutrients are more expensive, poorer people are often forced to purchase cheaper and often high-energy (fatty) foods that have a lower content of these same nutrients. While those affected eat their fill every day, their suboptimal nutrition often denies their bodies vital vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. Those who do not have enough money for a balanced diet often suffer, as adults, from traditional lifestyle diseases such as obesitydiabetes, and cardiovascular disease. So it’s no surprise that a recently published large-scale study from the United States found significantly more overweight children between the ages of two and five in low-income groups than the median for this age group in the USA. The cause, according to the researchers, is the lack of food security in poor families.

A report on food safety by the United Nations from 2011 states: Like malnutrition, micronutrient deficiency or hidden hunger is a violation of a child’s right to a standard of living that will enable it to adequately develop physically and mentally. The states therefore have a duty to establish food systems that not only ensure each child’s access to food with sufficient energy, but also to a variety of food, guaranteeing the supply of all micronutrients.”

Based on: Biesalski H.-K.  Der verborgene Hunger. Satt sein ist nicht genug, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 2013.