Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Massive Threat to Public Health Posed by Food Insecurity and What is Being Done About It

The Massive Threat to Public Health Posed by Food Insecurity and What is Being Done About It
by Charlotte Kellogg

It should come as nothing new to readers of Milfuegos that increased pesticide use and poor resource management are posing a serious risk to global food security. There are a number of long-term fixes that could be implemented both at home and abroad, though, which is the focus of today’s piece. Writer Charlotte Kellogg regularly publishes articles for students enrolled in public health degree programs with a particular focus on global hunger and disease. Readers interested in turning their passion for sustainability into a career should check her out.

The Massive Threat to Public Health Posed by Food Insecurity and What is Being Done About It

As the global population booms, food security is fast emerging as one of the most pressing public health concerns both in Westernized countries and in the developing world. Though people in traditionally impoverished regions are at the most risk for hunger and malnutrition, the problem is endemic to the global community at large. Basic food availability is one of the biggest challenges, as more people need more food and production cannot always live up to the demand. More concerning is availability, however. Broken channels of distribution and regions of gross food waste abutting those of shortage shine light on what may be best described as a stewardship problem. The crisis has grown so large that there really is no single solution. Better international food management and the implementation of farming technologies both new and old may make a big difference, though, particularly if implemented in a coordinated, targeted way.

The food crisis is often most poignant when seen in terms of the very young. Children who grow up malnourished or with diseases related to food shortage often fail to succeed academically, and have less potential for advancement. For many, this essentially “locks” them into the downward spiral of poverty, all but guaranteeing that they will never rise above the conditions of their birth. Many scholars see better food security as one of the simplest ways of rectifying this situation.

“The benefits of better food in early childhood last a lifetime,” The Economist said when summarizing the results of a 2011 “nutrition trial.” The trial centered on starving children in Guatemala but, the editors said, could also apply to those living in impoverished communities anywhere.  “Those who got the extra food up to 36 months left school later, with much higher educational qualifications than those who were stunted by malnutrition. They married partners with more education. Women who were better fed as girls had fewer pregnancies and miscarriages,” the study found.  Even income and earning potential was affected: men who were well-fed as children earned about 20 percent more than their malnourished counterparts, and women increased their odds of living in a non-impoverished household by about 30 percent.

Ensuring that children have the food and nutrients they need in childhood is often easier said than done, however. A number of government and international aid initiatives have tried and failed to come up with lasting solutions over the past decades. While most have made some impact at least at first, it has been difficult to track sustained progress over time.

Part of this may have to do with approach. “In the short-term, measures such as school feeding programs, conditional cash transfers, and food-for-work programs can help to ease pressure on the poor,” World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said in a July 2012 briefing about the growing food security crisis in places like Africa. These measures are not in and of themselves a cure, though.  “In the medium- to long-term, the world needs strong and stable policies and sustained investments in agriculture in poor countries,” Kim said.

One of the best agricultural investments may come in the form of technology. Agricultural technologies exist in a wide spectrum. Some, such as green resourcing, aim to help farmers realize crop potential by learning more about their land and ecological indicators, and are virtually intervention-free. Others, such as genetic modification and biodynamics, aim to create more sustainable, drought-resistant or pesticide-resistant crops that can be grown with relative ease most anywhere.

Though the food security problem is growing, it does not have to turn into a global pandemic. Proper resourcing, better education, and responsible use of technology can all contribute to a tomorrow that will be brighter—and fuller—than most of the yesterdays in recent memory.

Charlotte Kellog is a writer with http://www.publichealthdegree.com/, a resource for current and prospective public health students.