We all need to play our role in the fight against food insecurity and malnutrition

Sunday May 22 2011

By GILBERT arap BOR

One of the paradoxes of food security is that an obese person also can be malnourished.

We often associate food insecurity with a lack of calories. This is its classic and most obvious form. In extreme cases, a lack of calories can mean severe hunger or even starvation.

Yet sometimes people get plenty of calories but not enough nutrients. This is a less obvious form of food insecurity.

Some call it “hidden hunger” and it poses incredible challenges. Malnutrition stunts growth, hurts cognitive development in children, and darkens futures. Fortunately, technological advances in agriculture provide a solution.

The fundamental challenge of malnutrition is that people do not always want to buy and eat the food that is best for them.

Their first and last impulse is to want food that is cheap, tasty, and easily available. Nutrition has little or nothing to do with the choices people make when they shop.

This is especially true in developing countries, where money and access to food are limited. Here in Kenya, I see the problem of malnutrition regularly.

Fruit should be a part of everyone’s diet. But people skip it all the time, especially when it is out of season and perceived as being expensive.

The problem is most severe in urban slums and many rural districts of the country, such as Samburu and Turkana, and the North Eastern districts.

Around the world, malnutrition may affect as many as two billion people. It has almost certainly grown worse because of the global spike in food prices.

The Economist recently described the bad diet of the poor as “one of the world’s neglected scourges.” Everybody needs a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, but several types are commonly in short supply.

Iron is necessary for a functional immune system, but more than half the women in India and 40 per cent of those in Indonesia do not consume enough of the mineral.

Zinc contributes to the proper functioning of the brain and an estimated 400,000 people die each year because they do not take in the minimal amount required.

Vitamin A helps the body to protect its organs, but half-a-million children go blind each year because they lack this simple ingredient in their diets.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 43 million children under the age of five are at constant risk. The world must grow more food simply to feed itself. It also must grow better food so that people can thrive.

Farmers in Kenya and Uganda have responded by raising orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, whose rich nutrients rapidly improve the health of women and children.

Farmers would like to have access to the best technologies to fight malnutrition. Widespread approval of golden rice, a biotech crop, would combat vitamin A deficiencies.

So would the advent of biofortified cassava, turning a staple food crop for 250 million sub-Saharan Africans into an arsenal of carotenoids that boost vitamin A intake.

If researchers can find a way to change the colour of vitamin A-enriched maize from yellow to white, farmers would find a strong market for it.

Professors at Iowa State University recently used biotechnology to increase the protein content of soybeans. These are the sort of advances we hope can be achieved in Kenya.

As a farmer and educator, I plan to spearhead the establishment of a centre for food security and enterprise development at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus.

Our goal is to offer courses in food security and business and community organising skills training for farmers and SME owners, suppliers, marketers, and technical service providers through local and global partnerships.

Winning the war against malnutrition will require the creative efforts of everyone in the food chain, from the experts who develop cutting-edge technologies, to farmers who plant the seed and harvest the crop, to consumers who must educate themselves about the benefits of a proper diet.

Governments also have a key role to play — they must allow innovation to spread, unchecked by anti-scientific fear mongering.

Above all, it will take determination to fight hunger in all its forms and to deploy every weapon that 21st century technology can afford us.

Mr Bor is a farmer in Eldoret, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.