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Uncovering Undernutrition (Part II): What are the causes of undernutrition?

Uncovering Undernutrition Part I looked at how many people are undernourished in different regions of the world, and how much food is available in those regions. These numbers were taken from the 2012 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) entitled ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World‘. The report shows that there is more than enough food available to feed everyone, therefore, there must be other reasons why several million people are going hungry each year. So, what else affects undernutrition levels around the world?

One of the reasons discussed in Part I is that although there is enough food globally for everyone, it is very unevenly distributed between nations. However, food can also be distributed unevenly within a country, with some people able to access it whilst others not. One aspect is whether or not there is adequate transport that enables people to physically reach food. The problem is not necessarily that customers cannot get to markets, but rather that the farmers who produce the food cannot easily get to markets to sell their produce. Transportation may take a long time and prove costly to the farmer. The consequences, as a study by the FAO of sub-Saharan African countries shows, is that the farmer has to increase the price of his produce to make up for transportation costs, if he manages to get to the market at all. Additionally, the quality of the food diminishes during the journey.

Another aspect of accessibility is the price of food. Not only is this affected by the local transportation costs just mentioned, but external global factors play a large role too. For example, the World Bank reported in 2008 that the surge in global food prices during that year caused sudden large spikes in the price of rice, maize and wheat, staples in many African diets. This led to requests for emergency food aid in some countries. Robert Townsend, a Senior Economist at the World Bank, explained that food prices had risen because the demand for food crops had increased faster than the supply. This was mainly due to the trend of growing biofuel crops instead of food crops because of their higher profitability, which was inhibiting the increase of the food supply.

Demand for food has been increasing because of the rapidly growing population – today, an estimated 180,000 people are born each day and 78,000 die, resulting in a net increase of over 100,000 people per day. Townsend explained that another reason for the increasing demand, well-documented by the likes of Professor of Nutrition Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina (UNC), is that people’s diets in many developing countries are changing and becoming more ‘Westernized’ with an increased consumption of animal-based products. The Guardian newspaper also reported in 2008 that this was “affecting global prices of grain and dairy products, and raising the risk of hunger among the world’s poor as grain is diverted to fatten up animals.” However, there was and still is sufficient food to go around, but many people simply cannot afford to buy the quantity or quality of food that they need to stay healthy.

Several other causes of undernutrition were highlighted in the 2005 FAO report, ‘Assessment of the World Food Security Situation’. The report found that war was the leading cause of global hunger:

Conflict is now the most common cause of food insecurity. The number and scale of conflict-related, food security emergencies is increasing, and the role of human-induced disaster in escalating a natural crisis, such as drought, to a food security emergency has grown in importance over the last decade. The proportion of food emergencies that can be considered human-made has increased over time.

So although natural disasters such as droughts and flooding are sometimes the reason for undernutrition, this report found that their effects are being exacerbated by human actions. (In any case, the incidence of ‘freak’ events such as severe flooding is increasing due to man-made climate change). The horrific effects of war combined with a natural disaster were seen during the conflict in Sudan which started in 2003. Fighting devastated several villages, leaving the inhabitants able to plant only around a third of their normal crop due to the robbery of seeds, tools and livestock. This was combined with a drought. The people of this area are accustomed to harsh weather conditions, and have survival strategies which often enable them to survive during these periods. However, due to their depleted agricultural resources during the conflict, the result was 70,000 people dying from hunger and disease in one year, according to a UN estimate.

Another major yet less obvious reason for undernutrition in some countries, also reported by the 2005 FAO report,  is HIV and AIDS. The disease diverts financial and other resources away from food, both at the household and the national levels. And an AIDS sufferer is stuck in a vicious cycle: because of the illness, he/she has less strength and therefore a decreased ability to work. This leads to a decreased income and therefore even less money to spend on food and medicines. As a result, he/she becomes weaker and sicker, and the cycle goes on.

Factors such as transport, food prices, armed conflict, natural disasters, and AIDS are just some of the reasons behind global undernutrition. To tackle the problem effectively, these reasons must be addressed, which means looking at ‘the reasons behind these reasons.’ For instance, in the case of insufficient transport to and from rural areas, one should ask why the government is not doing more to improve the infrastructure in these regions. Is it simply a lack of resources, or is it because all effort is being focused in areas where important and wealthy people live? For food prices, addressing the increasing trend of growing biofuels and the change in people’s diets in developing countries will stop food prices from rising so sharply. In the case of armed conflicts, the reasons are often political, economic and/or racial, but they too need to be addressed if world hunger is to be decreased. Natural disasters certainly cannot be prevented, but their frequency is increasing due to man-made climate change. There is currently no effective cure or vaccine for AIDS, but neither is necessary if more effort is put into avoiding the spread of the disease (for example, by increasing health education to promote the use of condoms) in the regions most affected.

So the actual underlying reasons behind undernutrition are not always what comes to mind. But the fact that the vast majority of the reasons are man-made means that we at least have the power to tackle them. In doing so, not only will the problem of world hunger be alleviated, but the quality of people’s lives will be enhanced in many other ways too.

What are the other direct or indirect causes of undernutrition? Please leave a reply below.

Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

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For your reference:

Watts, J, The Guardian 30 May 2008, More wealth, more meat. How China’s rise spells trouble. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/may/30/food.china1>

Vasagar, J, The Guardian 20 October 2004, Raids leave villagers in Darfur facing starvation, Red Cross says. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2004/oct/20/internationalaidanddevelopment.sudan>

FAO, WFP and IFAD 2012, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012. Economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to accelerate reduction of hunger and malnutrition. <http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3027e/i3027e.pdf>http://go.worldbank.org/KIFNA6OZS0

FAO Corporate Document Repository 2005, Assessment of the World Food Security Situation. <http://www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/009/J4968e/j4968e00.htm#P100_10850>

FAO, Food Security and Agricultural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Building a case for more public support, Policy Brief No. 1. <http://www.oecd.org/tad/agricultural-policies/36784159.pdf>

The World Bank 2008, The Effects of High Food Prices in Africa – Q&A.  <http://go.worldbank.org/KIFNA6OZS0>

Worldometers real time world statistics.  <http://www.worldometers.info/>



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