By Thomas Hellauer
DES MOINES, Iowa – The leading cause of illness and mortality globally is not violence, disease or even hunger; it is poor nutrition. Researchers at the University of California Davis World Food Center discussed misconceptions about world hunger at the Launching a New Initiative – Food for a Healthy World panel Wednesday at the World Food Prize in the Downtown Marriott Hotel.
There are an estimated two billion people living in a state of nutrient deficiency today though that number is steadily decreasing. The panel identified two regions as at risk areas; Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
With global food demand expected to grow somewhere between 50 and 70 percent by the year 2050, a third of that demand will come from Sub-Saharan Africa and a quarter from South Asia, respectively. These areas already experience difficulty properly feeding their residents, but the future need could tip them into instability.
The World Food Center researchers recognized the potential for future problems and created the Innovation Institute for Food and Health at the university. Their goal is to assist those with poor nutrition diets by making nutritional foods more accessible.
“Asia is quickly running out of arable land,” Joseph Glauber, former chief economist of the USDA, said, “and Africa lacks the necessary infrastructure to meet the estimated demands.” Currently these areas struggle to produce the wide variety of nutrients essential to a balanced diet.
Christine Stewart, Ph.D. in nutrition, emphasized the need for infants and mothers to consume recommended amounts of vitamins and nutrients.
“During this period of rapid growth in infancy and early childhood, failing to intake healthy amounts of micro nutrients and vitamins has negative, lifelong implications,” she said. “(Nutrient deficient) children are at a much greater health risk. They do poorer in school and ultimately contribute less to society than they would if they were completely healthy.”
In turn, they earn less capital. Less capital signifies smaller purchasing power for the wide array of foods needed in a balanced diet and the cycle of poverty continues. The institute recognized this pitfall and responded by working on creating crops that need less input from pesticides, irrigation and other crop treatments.
“Many of the missing nutrients come from milk, meats and eggs. This means that those animals will need to eat, too, and the crops we are working on will help to accomplish this,” Stewart said.
One of the institute’s top priorities, genetic engineering for heat and drought tolerance, will be useful in the face of climate change, Roger Beachy, moderator and founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, said.
The institute promotes sustainable practices in an effort to ensure food security as well. Crops with higher concentrations of useful vitamins and require less intensive care under different conditions would solve the world nutrition dilemma. And while this remains a goal, Beachy was clear, “This epidemic is a nutrition shortage, not a food one.”