Millennium Development Goals: global hunger and undernutrition

We may all be familiar with the face of hunger, but undernutrition may be more difficult to detect and treat. Last Tuesday, I attended a lecture by Dr. Jessica Fanzo of the Earth Institute’s Center for Global Health and Economic Development. She spoke about “Global Progress in Ending Hunger and Undernutrition.”

Some symptoms of undernutrition may include stunted growth for children, and overweightness for adults (due to a poor diet). Undernutrition is linked to lack of access to nutritious foods and poor economic opportunities.

Their Millenium Villages Project focuses on 4 main micronutrients: vitamin A, iron, folate, and iodine. These are essential micronutrients that when deficient are known to affect development, immune system function, and can increase disease risk, particularly of young children and pregnant women.

In general, micronutrients are compounds that are found in very small amounts. Plant health is pretty dependent on certain micronutrients in the soil, such as boron, calcium, zinc, iron, and chlorine.

But nutrition is complex and we do not have a full understanding of how it relates to human health, and that is why Dr. Fanzo promotes an overall approach that emphasizes a diverse diet that includes leafy greens and appropriate portions of carbohydrates and eggs or animal protein.

It is a complex problem overall because of a few major factors:

  • Nutrition and health issues are “political, administrative, and institutional orphan” because it is “everybody’s business and nobody’s responsibility”
  • As a result, there is a lack of political commitment
  • Nutrition focused programs are difficult or less popular to fund
  • Cultural factors make it tricky to gather support for initiatives

Global food issues are not just about availability of food, but of high quality food. We are still trying to figure out what that is, but we do know that a diverse diet of plants is essential to a healthy body. It saddens me to see that people consistently choose foods that are known to be bad for their health, when there are better alternatives. Especially in the United States, I’m ashamed of what our food culture has become. It happens here and it happens in poor countries as well, according to Dr. Fanzo. Women in the Millennium Villages Project’s villages eat large portions of refined maize meal daily, when native leafy greens are plentiful.

What is difficult now is, how do can people change their food choices and eating behavior? No one likes to be told what to do, especially with their bodies. If that were not true, smoking would not still be as popular today as it is.

Education and advocacy alone will not work. When given a choice between a food item that is tasty but unhealthy and a food item that is healthy but less tasty, the default is to go with the tastier item. The problem is that a lot of the “tastier” stuff is so far from natural that our bodies can’t process them as well as the plants and animals we have evolved to eat.

As a species, we need to return to the foods that have worked for us for hundreds and thousands of years, and wean ourselves off of the super processed foods that hardly resemble food anymore. For the U.S., maybe that will mean government regulations on the food industry, I’m not sure. But I think the only way that undernutrition and hunger will be alleviated in many places in the world will be through planning that involves capacity building for villagers to gather and grow nutritious food. It certainly will not solve any problems to send them corn meal grown in the U.S.


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3 thoughts on “Millennium Development Goals: global hunger and undernutrition

  1. I think that in US, a lot of people have turned to gardening and grow-your-own-food already! (Including Mrs Obama and Oprah as ilustrious examples!) Some lawns have been turned into gardens etc.
    In Slovenia, food in supermarkets is still too cheap, and even many farmers here don’t garden or have pigs etc! It’s ‘cheaper’ to buy! (iffy food, like beans from Argentina, China garlic…) Some farmers are too old, their kids work in offices all day, don’t have the wish to garden.. I had no joy for gardening either until I watched the movie about Monsanto, and read in a health food store magazine how the only way you know what you eat is if you grow it. Those two were really big eye-openers. So last year I started my ‘apprenticeship’ as a gardener, and it was surprisingly a lot of fun! (A lot of hard work too, when I cursed Monsanto with every shovel, lol!)
    My Dad turned to healthy food after big problems with rheumatism, he read books and educated himself, doctors didn’t tell him much! Our whole family started to eat healthier back then, even though Mom, Sis & I were very sceptical at first! Mom saw it worked too, for her rheumatism!)
    And I was allergic to food additives before anyway!
    If doctors started inspiring people about this more, it would be waay better!
    Big pharmaceutic companies still have interests in just pushing their products though – both toxic farming chemicals and then meds!! (Like Bayer, selling aspirins and cotton -cides!) I don’t know how forbidden chemicals in EU can still be sold in India?
    Grassroots efforts and alerting/lobbying politicians to change legislations might be the answer-?
    Monsanto is going to try to sell their GMO food everywhere, they’ve bought many seeds companies too, farmers worldwide already had big problems over that! (So I’m learning to grow my own food, including how to make own seeds, just in case!:)

  2. I also think that minerals like magnesium or zinc are often overlooked! Many people in ‘modern world’ may have deficiencies and not know about it!

    The thing with nutrition is that it’s often very individual, things that work for a 50+ male may not be the same as for a 20-30 female.
    There are tons of books out there, some with completely conflicting advice what to eat! (and many are helped by them anyway!) It’s important everyone finds own nutritional ‘best’ program, it may be different even for relatives.
    Then it’s also lifestyle, levels of stress, environmental factors…
    Some things are generally acknowledged and some can be very specific for everyone.

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