‘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

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