Creative thinking needed to produce enough of the right foods to feed the world and fight the rising overweight burden
Alice Pell presenting a fellows’ seminar at STIAS
Photo: Christoff Pauw
“There are currently 900 million undernourished people in the world which is 132 million less than 20 years ago – that’s the good news though, said Alice Pell, “there are also 2 billion who are overweight of which 500 million are obese.”
The small gains made in feeding the word are being cancelled out by the challenge of tackling increasing obesity. “Non-communicable diseases are no longer rich-country diseases,” said Prof. Pell, “and they most often have dietary origins.”
“Progress in reducing undernutrition has been good at a global level, however, there are huge regional variations and change in Africa has been small.”
“In sub-Saharan Africa there has not been as much change as we would like in lowering the percentage of underweight people over the last 20 years (only 12.4 to 12.1%) , but, at the same time, the overweight percentage has increased from 16.2 to 22.2%.”
“China has shown that it is possible to reduce underweight, but it takes a lot of will. No country has made huge strides in reducing overweight.”
Increasing overweight is due to both social and technological changes. In the 1970s and 1980s, technologies were developed to extract vegetable oil from oilseeds and high fructose corn syrup from maize inexpensively, which made oil and sugar low-cost ingredients that could be included in the diets of the poor. Consumption of these ingredients has increased while intake of coarse grains, legumes, pulses fruit and vegetables have declined. Lifestyle habits including increased snacking frequency, growing portions, and increased access to and use of packaged and ultra-processed foods have also become the norm. “As incomes for some have increased, processed and packaged food has become more available and is often now cheaper and more convenient than healthier alternatives,” said Prof. Pell.
“In the US three quarters of food bought in super markets has added sugar,” she added.
“In South Africa soft drink consumption increased by nearly 70% between 1994 and 2012 while vegetable consumption went down by 7.9%.” In this regard she applauded the South African government’s recently introduced tax on fizzy sugary drinks.
Alice Pell, who is Professor in the Department of Animal Science at Cornell University and former Director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, Cornell’s programme for poverty alleviation and sustainable rural development for developing countries. Her research which focuses on tropical farming systems and the integration of agriculture and nutrition in Africa and Asia, was speaking at a STIAS seminar. Her current work at STIAS forms part of the project Impact of sustainable intensification of food production on environment and human well-being, and falls within the longer term theme of Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems. She is also currently working on a project linking South African and Mozambican researchers with others from southern Africa, the rest of the continent and elsewhere.
Prof. Pell emphasised the need to focus on the triple burden of malnutrition – insufficient food intake; micronutrient deficiencies which she described as “hidden hunger”; and, excess intake leading to obesity. “We need to address all three,” she said. “The consequences of each have serious lifelong consequences.”
Insufficient intake of dietary energy and protein results in hunger, reduced learning ability, disease and premature death (affecting 14% of the world’s population). Micronutrient deficiencies (affecting about 25% of the population) cause physical and cognitive deficits, anaemia, blindness and reduced resistance to other health risks. While excess intake of dietary energy (affecting about 25% of the population) results in overweight, obesity and chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, cancers, strokes and cardiovascular disease. “Eighty per cent of deaths from cardiovascular disease are now in low- and middle-income countries,” she continued. “NCDs no longer are found primarily in high income countries, which has serious consequences for health care and budgets.”
There are proven strategies to address micronutrient deficiencies including balanced diets and appropriate cooking methods; bio-fortification of crops through plant breeding, post-harvest fortification and supplementation with pills.
“The first and best line of defense though is good diets and cooking methods,” said Prof. Pell.
However, even when we know what to do, we aren’t necessarily that good at doing it. For example, iodine deficiency still affects 2 billion people leading to reduced IQ, but we know how to reduce it by iodising salt. “Salt is cheap, much cheaper than dealing with the deficiency,” said Prof. Pell. “So we need to ensure that iodised salt is available globally.”
More mouths to feed and they will be in the towns
To add to the nutritional challenge, the population is increasing – by 2050 there will be 9.7 billion people. The populations of Europe and Asia will start to decline, but 50% of projected growth will be in Africa (1.3 billion) and, overall, just nine countries will account for 50% of population growth – India, Nigeria, Pakistan, DRC, Ethiopia, Tanzania, USA, Indonesia and Uganda.
Also populations will become increasingly urbanised with 58% of Africans living in cities by 2050.
The population is also aging – by 2050 people aged over 60 will comprise 22% of the total population (mostly in Asia) and those over 80 will increase 3.5 fold.
“There will be 2.4 billion more mouths to feed,” said Alice. “This all means that by 2050 we need to produce 70% more food. However, this must be food that addresses the common deficiencies of iron, zinc and Vitamin A. Dietary diversity is important in reducing micronutrient deficiencies.
Food wastage is a huge problem as well. One third of all food produced is currently wasted along the food chain. In Africa and Asia, most of this wastage occurs at the harvesting and storage phases while in Europe and North America this occurs at the harvest, retail and consumption stages. A staggering 52% of fruit and vegetables produced are wasted in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Add to this climate change, leading to water scarcity and soil degradation, challenges in energy supply and other environmental challenges, and the chances of us meeting Sustainable Development Goal 2 of “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” become slim.
“It’s not just about producing more food,” said Prof. Pell. “We have to reconsider the entire food production system and make decisions on a country-by-country basis.”
“During the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, it was assumed that improved crop yields alone would end undernutrition – this hasn’t happened.”
The politics of food are extremely challenging and telling people what to eat is not acceptable. There’s also no point in advising people what to eat if that food is not available. “We have to increase fruit and vegetable production. Currently low-income countries only have 42% of the fruit and vegetables they need. Climate change will likely further reduce fruit and vegetable production. By 2050 it is estimated that South Africans will get less than half of the recommended daily consumption of 400 grams per capita per day.”
“The diets we are currently producing all over the world literally are killing us. We are playing with people’s lives if we fail to take nutritional security seriously.”
“But,” she cautioned, “we also can’t take huge risks. We have to fully understand all the factors involved. Agriculture moves slowly and bad mistakes could have horrendous consequences.”
“We need nutritionally conscious agriculture that is in harmony with the environment and we will need to be very creative in how we get there,” she concluded.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS