Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chronic and Recent Starvation and Malnourishment

I recently got a relatively short article published on malnourishment with the European Journal of Public Health which is published by the Oxford University Press. The article is titled "Chronic and Recent Starvation and Malnourishment" and is accessible from the journal's website here. If you would like to read the article, I am reprinting it below:

Chronic and Recent Starvation and Malnourishment

In 2008 and late 2010, the world experienced marked increases in the prices for many basic food staples. News reports have focused on these increases in food prices and the resultant associated increase in levels of worldwide food insecurity. The shock of recent dramatic food price increases has motivated many vulnerable people to protest and riot thus attracting attention to the problem of rising food costs. However, the issue of inadequate food leading to starvation and malnourishment has long been a chronic problem receiving little attention.

Evaluation of the size of chronic food problems is challenging due to limited data on the issue. The United Nations has put the number of malnourished people at 925 million [1]. Dr. David Pimentel of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University writes in the journal Science, claiming that the true number of malnourished may in fact be closer to 3 times this amount when factoring in a wide range of definitions of malnourishment (including calorie, protein, vitamins, iron and iodine deficiencies) [2]. The United Nations has claimed that prior to recent dramatic food price increases, 36 million malnourished people die each year [3]. It can be difficult to evaluate the scope of such large numbers. In order to put the mortality figure of 36 million annual deaths [3] in perspective, it is about 3 times the average annual death rate due to World War II, one of the planet's deadliest wars. The United Nations figures are an estimation of the scope of the problem. Estimates need to be employed since adequate statistics are not kept in many of the world's nations with significant malnourishment problems.

Correcting food problems will involve assisting regions experiencing high levels of malnourishment to produce more food. Accomplishing this requires increased public awareness which is typically critical for organizing governments towards committing more resources to rectifying the situation. While food handouts are necessary for helping people's immediate hunger problems, assisting regions to produce adequate amounts of food is preferential in order to both keep down the costs of solving chronic food problems along with encouraging self-sufficiency in regions suffering from malnourishment. At present, relatively meager amounts of public funds are devoted to world food problems. The chronic food crisis receives scant attention compared with many other issues the world faces and the main publicly funded agency devoted to helping with world food problems (the United Nations World Food Programme) receives funding of just 3 to 4 billion dollars per year, a very small amount compared to the budgets of modern nations.

Alleviating world food problems should involve a wide variety of complimentary methods including fertilizer and soil donations, providing paying jobs to help the hungry, food handouts, researching genetically engineered foods and assisting poor farmers to make use of newly developed technologies and farming methods. The situation would also be improved by ending the diversion of food to fuel, most commonly in the form of the United States' corn crops being turned into ethanol. The chief economist of the U.S. department of agriculture has estimated that the diversion of corn to fuel accounts for one fifth of the U.S. corn crop [4]. If that corn were sold as food rather than diverted to ethanol production then the increased supply would cause corn prices to fall which would help poor corn consumers. In addition, financial trading institutions have been investing in the price of food which in turn has the effect of raising the cost of basic staples. Testimony before the United States Senate has indicated that investments in this area have increased from $13 billion dollars in 2003 to $260 billion dollars in 2008 [5]. The price of 25 staples have increased by an average of 183% over those five years.

World food problems warrant far more attention from the public and the world's political leaders than is presently received. The United Nations estimates that malnutrition affects approximately one seventh of the world's population [1]. A separate report from the United Nations also estimates that the malnourished account for 58% of worldwide deaths [3]. Addressing the food crisis has the potential to save millions of lives worldwide.


[1] "Global hunger declining, but still unacceptably high," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Economic and Social Development Department, September 2010.

[2] David Pimentel and John Morse, "Malnutrition, Disease, and the Developing World," Science, Vol. 300(5617), April 2003.

[3] Jean Ziegler, "Economic, Social and Cultural Rights," United Nations Economic and Social Council, February 2001.

[4] K. Collins, Chief Economist, U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Statement Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry," January 10, 2007.

[5] Michael W. Masters, Masters Capital Management, LLC, "Testimony Before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate," May 20, 2008.