Poor food ‘risks health of half the world’

Malta Independent - - SCIENCE -

Poor di­ets are un­der­min­ing the health of one in three of the world’s peo­ple, an in­de­pen­dent panel of food and agri­cul­ture ex­perts has warned.

The re­port says un­der-nour­ish­ment is stunt­ing the growth of nearly a quar­ter of chil­dren un­der five.

And by 2030 a third of the pop­u­la­tion could be over­weight or obese.

The re­port by the Global Panel on Agri­cul­ture and Food Sys­tems for Nu­tri­tion is be­ing pre­sented to the UN’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

The panel - which is led by the for­mer Pres­i­dent of Ghana John Ku­fuor and the for­mer Chief Sci­en­tific Ad­vi­sor to the UK Gov­ern­ment Sir John Bed­ding­ton says two bil­lion peo­ple lack the range of vi­ta­mins and min­er­als in their diet needed to keep them healthy.

The re­sult is an in­crease in heart dis­ease, hy­per­ten­sion, di­a­betes and other diet-re­lated ill­nesses that un­der­mines pro­duc­tiv­ity and threat­ens to over­whelm health ser­vices.

These non-in­fec­tious, chronic dis­eases have been as­so­ci­ated with the fatty, highly pro­cessed diet of the de­vel­oped world. But most new cases are ap­pear­ing in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

The panel has warned that on cur­rent trends the sit­u­a­tion will get far worse in the next 20 years.

It says only an global ef­fort sim­i­lar to that used to tackle HIV or malaria will be enough to meet the chal­lenge.

Ac­cord­ing to the panel, child and ma­ter­nal mal­nu­tri­tion, high blood pres­sure and other diet-re­lated risks each cost more lifeyears than smok­ing, air pol­lu­tion, poor san­i­ta­tion or un­safe sex.

Great progress has been made in re­duc­ing un­der-nour­ish­ment, but 800 mil­lion peo­ple still ex­pe­ri­ence hunger on a daily ba­sis.

Un­der nour­ish­ment is starkly ap­par­ent in the rate of stunt­ing among chil­dren.

A quar­ter of those aged un­der five have di­min­ished phys­i­cal and men­tal ca­pac­i­ties. Un­dernour­ished women are giv­ing birth to ba­bies with life­long im­pair­ments.

One of the re­port’s au­thors, Prof Lawrence Had­dad of the In­ter­na­tional Food Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute, cites Gu­atemala, where more than 40% of chil­dren are short for their age.

“It’s partly driven by in­equal­ity”, he says. “Peo­ple on higher in­comes have bet­ter food and very low rates of stunt­ing. Low in­come groups eat a diet based on maize (corn), but they don’t get enough veg­eta­bles, fruit, dairy food or pro­tein such as that found in chicken.”

The Global Panel’s Direc­tor, Prof Sandy Thomas, says it’s a sim­i­lar story in many low and mid­dle in­come coun­tries, and poor phys­i­cal con­di­tion leads di­rectly to low pro­duc­tiv­ity.

“One or two African coun­tries have had big suc­cesses with agri­cul­ture. In Rwanda grow­ing iron­rich beans has helped re­duce anaemia among women - but across the world anaemia is de­creas­ing very slowly.”

In a fore­word to the re­port, James Whar­ton, a min­is­ter in the UK’s De­part­ment for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment says the costs of un­der­nu­tri­tion in terms of lost na­tional pro­duc­tiv­ity are sig­nif­i­cant, with be­tween 3 and 16% of GDP lost an­nu­ally in Africa and Asia.

Over­all the losses have been about 10% of GDP, equiv­a­lent to the ef­fect of the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis on a con­tin­u­ous ba­sis.

At­tempts to com­bat un­der-nu­tri­tion have some­times fo­cused on in­creas­ing calo­ries at the ex­pense of im­prov­ing over­all diet.

Many coun­tries have moved rapidly from wide­spread un­der­nu­tri­tion to a se­ri­ous prob­lem with obe­sity.

In China, where di­ets have changed rapidly in re­cent years, half the pop­u­la­tion is pro­jected to be over­weight or obese by 2030.

Glob­ally, es­ti­mates sug­gest that the num­ber of over­weight and obese peo­ple will have grown from 1.3 bil­lion in 2005, to 3.3 bil­lion - about a third of the pop­u­la­tion.

Although some prob­lems are al­le­vi­ated by eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, di­ets can, and of­ten are, de­te­ri­o­rat­ing as coun­tries be­come richer.

The panel re­ports that although peo­ple are eat­ing more fruit and veg­eta­bles, the ef­fect is be­ing eclipsed by in­creas­ing con­sump­tion of low-qual­ity food.

Ur­ban­i­sa­tion is lead­ing many more peo­ple to eat di­ets dom­i­nated by pro­cessed food, in­clud­ing street food high in sat­u­rated fat and salt, and car­ry­ing an in­creased risk of adul­ter­ation and in­fec­tion.

Prof Had­dad says the con­cen­tra­tion of peo­ple in cities also at­tracts food com­pa­nies and su­per­mar­kets.

“Highly pro­cessed food with long shelf life, high in calo­ries but low in nu­tri­tional value, max­imises profit,” he says. “Su­per­mar­ket buy­ers are some of the most pow­er­ful de­ter­min­ers of na­tional diet.”

In­deed the amount of food in the global diet that has un­der­gone a de­gree of pro­cess­ing is in­creas­ing.

Lower mid­dle in­come coun­tries are show­ing the fastest growth for pro­cessed foods that con­trib­ute calo­ries, sug­ars, salt and fat - such as bis­cuits, snack bars and con­fec­tionary.

In 2000, up­per mid­dle in­come coun­tries al­ready had a third of the “ul­tra-pro­cessed” food and drinks of the high in­come coun­tries - such as ice-cream, sug­ary drinks, and sweet and savoury snacks - but by 2015 it was more than half.

The Global Panel pre­dicts a dra­mat­i­cally wors­en­ing sit­u­a­tion over the next 20 years as the pop­u­la­tion in­creases - leav­ing half the world mal­nour­ished.

There will be an­other two bil­lion mouths to feed in Africa and Asia by 2050. It claims that the best ev­i­dence sug­gests that cli­mate change will also lead to more than half a mil­lion ad­di­tional deaths, most in low and mid­dle in­come coun­tries.

It says world­wide stud­ies show crop yields to be neg­a­tively af­fected by cli­mate change in the trop­i­cal ar­eas where hunger is most wide­spread, although they ac­knowl­edge that yields could in­crease else­where.

One dan­ger sug­gested in the re­port is that by 2050 the es­ti­mated im­pact of el­e­vated car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere on the zinc con­tent of grains, tu­bers and legumes could place 138 mil­lion more peo­ple at new risk of zinc de­fi­ciency.

Peo­ple need to be nour­ished rather than sim­ply fed says the panel.

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