‘All Poor Everything’ – The Food System, Poverty and the Double Burden of Disease

Based on the fact that the term ‘malnutrition’ has been redefined to include undernutrition AND overnutrition, it’s safe to say that malnutrition is now a global problem. However, even though it’s no longer just about starving children in Asia and Africa, it is about obese children in Europe and America…AND Asia and Africa. Yes indeed, thanks to globalisation and the nutrition transition, poor people in poor countries with poor diets and poor healthcare are now dealing with potential obesity epidemics and all the trimmings that come with it; including the chronic diseases once associated with the more affluent parts of the world such as cancers and heart disease and hypertension. So, all of this new burden is being piled on top of an existing burden of infectious diseases associated with undernutrition, which has actually gotten worse (See A Broken Food System…). So yes, poor people in poor countries with poor diets and poor healthcare (which I will now refer to as P to the 4th power or P4, or ‘All Poor Everything’) now have to battle against a double the burden of disease with the same malfunctioning, mediocre healthcare system they’ve always had – which is apparently seventy-six doctors for every one hundred thousand people; not to mention poor infrastructure, poor sanitation, poor road systems and poor electricity supplies (Pearson and Jordan, 2010) – talk about reverse progress.

So in addition to the 800 million people suffering from what is called ‘chronic hunger’ – “not consuming enough energy to lead a normal life”; another 600 million people are consuming too much energy to lead a normal life, suffering from what is called ‘obesity’. On top of this, another two billion people are deficient in essential micronutrients. In fact, here’s a not-so-fun trivia question: What do children’s diets in India, Kenya, Senegal and Guatemala all have in common? Answer: They are all deficient in micronutrients (vitamin A, Iodine and Iron) that are oh-so important for their optimum growth.

I think that everyone can now agree (at least I hope so) that this state of nutrition chaos is all down to an incredibly messed up food system – from the policies to the production to the processing to the marketing to the purchasing to the preparing to the consumption to the wasting. Yet the link between the human food system and human health is a relatively recent one and a difficult one to make at that, as audacious as that might sound – (like which other species relies on their food system to keep them healthy?) Worse yet are the links between agriculture, nutrition and health: the food you grow becomes the food you eat, which provides the nutrients you need to keep you in good health – sounds like a no-brainer right? Well apparently it’s more complicated than that; so complicated that some of the highest incidences of chronic hunger and childhood stunting are found in agricultural regions and in the households of small-scale farmers – people that grow food for a living. Let that one sink in…

To explain this complication, I find it fitting to use a quote made by Uncle Ryan from ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ – “you can get it good and cheap but not fast; fast and cheap but not good; or good and fast but not cheap.” Indeed he was referring to passport photos for a fake ID, but it can apply to the global food system as well. For many P4 people, food is either not available or not accessible, of really bad quality, or simply way too expensive. Not only that, but in those cases where food IS available AND affordable AND of good quality; some people apparently either don’t have the knowledge of how important this food is for their health, or have neither the time nor resources to prepare it, for whatever reason; be it too busy working in a fast-paced urban environment, or limited water to wash and cook with in a rural setting.

So change is needed – and not just any change, but quick and drastic change; something radical… like a food revolution; a total reshaping of the food system. So how do we go about achieving this? Some experts recommend that this should begin with governments improving national food policies to make them more sensitive to the nutrition needs of their population. Given that undernutrition during infancy and childhood can lead to poor cognitive development, permanent IQ loss and a decreased potential for lifelong learning; perhaps the emphasis should be placed on the economic impact of poor nutrition instead – after all, everyone talks, but money usually has the first say. So it may be momentarily heart-breaking to hear that three million children die every year because of undernutrition; but the fact that that undernourished children go on to earn 20% less when they become adults compared to those that were well nourished; and that Africa and Asia stand to lose eleven percent of their Gross National Product every year due to poor nutrition; and (one more) that chronic diseases can cost the global economy $35 trillion US dollars by 2030 might motivate more of a response.

Part 2: More expert recommendations – coming soon

Source: Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Leveraging Agriculture and Food to improve Global Nutrition. Sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

 

References available on request

Meat doesn’t grow on trees – so let’s cut them down

To mark the United Nations’ International Day of Forests on March 21st, this post briefly highlights the association between deforestation and arguably its  single largest cause – commercial livestock farming.

 

peabiru_graphic

Beef consumption contributes to deforestation in the Amazon

In our modern world of dietary indulgence, where a person can order an entire platter of pork ribs, or a bucket of chicken wings, and receive it in matter of minutes, one can’t help but wonder just how did it become so easy to satisfy our cravings for all things meaty, and who or what is paying the real price for this convenience.

One doesn’t have to be an economist to understand the concept of ‘supply and demand’ – meaning that any increase in demand must be met by an increase in supply. So essentially, the livestock industry needs ensure that the supply is sufficient to satisfy consumer demands. This usually means scaling-up on existing production by acquiring more land space to house animals and grow food to feed them. Seeing that livestock already takes up around 45% of the global surface area 1, there is little space left to occupy – apart from rainforests.

The term “hamburger connection” was coined in 1981 to describe the United States’ then growing, and now firmly established love affair with beef 2. Cheap beef from cattle in Central American countries was produced and sold largely at the expense of their rainforests 2. In fact, over the past forty years, Central America alone  lost close to 40% of their rainforest  to cattle ranching alone 3. It wasn’t only US meat consumers enjoying cheap meat ranched on deforested land – in 2004-2005, approximately 1.2 million hectares of rainforest was cleared to grow the soybean crops that fed pigs and chickens in Europe 4. These figures are incorporated in the13 million hectares of global rainforest that has been cut down every year since 2000 5

The problem worsens as one travels further South, where the bulk of deforestation is taking place, and pasture land and feed crops make up the largest proportion of agricultural land 6. Brazil, believed to possess 62% of the Amazon rainforest, has already lost close to 80% of it; 70% of which was designated to cattle ranching 6.  Sadly but not surprisingly, this rate is increasing. From August 2012 to July 2013, Brazil reported a 35% increase in deforestation, as a space three times the size of New York City (2,338 sq km) was cleared 7.  The rate of deforestation in the Amazon was five times higher in 2013 than it was in 2012, which according to Reuters was “linked closely to soybean producers’ continual ‘indirect’ use of cattle ranchers’ deforested land.” 7

livestock3_0

So what is all the fuss about deforestation anyway? Perhaps someone working in environmental health, or maybe a climatologist should be asked to comment. Up to 75% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions is said to be caused by deforestation 8. From a global perspective, deforestation is responsible for a monumental 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year 9, making it the largest contributor within the livestock sector. Deforestation also leads to considerable land degradation, which causes an estimated 75 billion tonnes of soil to be removed each year, at an average cost of US$400 billion dollars 6. Soil has a rich biodiversity of microbes that not only contributes to plant growth 10, but also determines much of the nutrient content of foods 10. During deforestation, organic matter is removed 10, leaving microbes with less of the carbon it needs to regulate nutrient delivery to plants 10, thus contributing to food and nutrition insecurity.

Deforestation, Climate Change, and Food Insecurity

Deforestation, Climate Change, and Food Insecurity

Environment scientists cite deforestation as one of the main causes of plant and animal species loss in tropical rainforests 11. This is hardly surprising when considering that just one quarter-pound hamburger imported from Latin America can destroy 165 pounds of living matter, including 20-30 plant species, 100 insect species, and dozens of bird, mammal, and reptile species. 12 It is even predicted that the number of birds threatened with extinction in the Amazon should triple within the next few decades 13. If current deforestation rates increase or even stays the same, species extinction will continue up to three decades after deforestation has ceased 13 – if it ever does.

Much of the ‘powers that be’ appear to be taking a “wait and see what happens” approach to deforestation and its impact on the environment and life as we know it. Unfortunately, much of the science is saying that by the time we begin to experience the real effects of deforestation, it may already be too late to prevent, reverse or halt any of the damage being done. In a sense, the real ‘power’ lies in the hands of the consumer, who can decide whether or not they want to learn more about how their diet contributes to deforestation, and whether or not they choose to do something about it.

Further reading:

Brighter Green

Case Study: Brazil Livestock

Deforestation: Disastrous consequences for the climate and for food security

References

  1. 1.      Thornton P, Mario Herrero M, Ericksen P (2011) Livestock and climate change. International Livestock Research Institute. http://piarn.org.au/sites/piarn.boab.info/files/resources/541/issuebrief3.pdf
  1. 2.      Hecht SB. (1993) The Logic of Livestock and Deforestation in Amazonia. BioScience, Vol. 43, No. 10, pp. 687-695 http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/1312340.pdf?acceptTC=true&acceptTC=true&jpdConfirm=true
  1. 3.       Food and Agriculture Organisation.  Cattle ranching and deforestation. Livestock Policy Brief 03  ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0262e/a0262e00.pdf
  1. 4.      Food and Agriculture Organisation: Livestock’s role in deforestation http://www.fao.org/agriculture/lead/themes0/deforestation/en/
  1. 5.      United Nations (2010) Deforestation in decline but rate remains alarming, UN agency says. United Nations News Centre.  http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=34195
  1. 6.      Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T et al. (2006) Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental issues and options. FAO/LEAD, Rome, Italy. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
  1. 7.      Prada P, Barbara P (2013) Brazil data indicate increase in Amazon deforestation. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/05/us-brazil-deforestation-idUSBRE9640ZD20130705
  1. 8.      Tollefson J (2011) Brazil revisits forest code. Nature News  http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110817/full/476259a.html
  1. 9.      McMichael AJ, Powles JW, Butler CW, Uauy R (2007) Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health. Lancet; 370: 1253–63
  1. 10.  Zhu YG (2009) Soil Science in the Understanding of the Security of Food Systems for Health. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr;18(4):516-519
  1. 11.  School of Natural Resources and Environment – University of Michigan; Modern Causes of Species Extinctions: habitat Destruction  http://www.snre.umich.edu/~dallan/nre220/outline6.htm
  1. 12.  Julie Denslow and Christine Padoch, People of the Tropical Rainforest (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1988), 169.  cited by – McSpotlight – Beyond Beef: http://www.mcspotlight.org/media/reports/beyond.html
  2. 13.  Wearn OR, Reuman DC, Ewers RM. (2012) Extinction Debt and Windows of Conservation Opportunity in the Brazilian Amazon. Science 337, 228; doi: 10.1126/science.1219013