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One in eight people suffer from malnutrition worldwide

Girl in village in Madagascar. One of the world's poorest countries, it has been estimated that about 70 percent of Malagasy people suffer from malnutrition. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Girl in village in Madagascar. One of the world’s poorest countries, it has been estimated that about 70 percent of Malagasy people suffer from malnutrition. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

In a world where technology has advanced to a point where I can instantly have a face-to-face conversation via online video with a friend in Tokyo, nearly 870 million people, or one in eight, still suffer from malnutrition, according to a new UN report. While worldwide hunger declined from 1990 to 2007, progress was slowed by the global economic crisis. Over the last few years, numerous and record-breaking extreme weather events have also taken tolls on food production. Currently, food prices hover just below crisis levels.

“We find it entirely unacceptable that more than 100 million children under five are underweight,” the heads of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the World Food Programme (WFP) write in a forward to the report, State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012, adding that such children “are unable to realize their full human and socio-economic potential, and that childhood malnutrition is a cause of death for more than 2.5 million children every year.”

From the early 1990s to today, the number of those going to bed hungry has fallen by around 132 million, dropping from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the total world population. While this is laudable progress, regions still make a big difference. In fact, hunger has actually risen in Africa: 64 million people have been added to the number of hungry on the continent since the early 1990s. Population growth rates are also highest in Africa.

Overall the world has pledged to cut hunger to 11.6 percent by 2015, one of several Millennium Development Goals. But experts note this may be difficult to attain, especially given a continually rising world population and a rise in extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, which scientists are increasingly linking directly to climate change.

In fact, record-breaking droughts and heatwaves in the U.S., floods in northern Europe, and droughts in Russia and the Ukraine have put unexpected stress on a number of food commodities this year. Meanwhile, rising demand for meat and dairy in the developing world and continuing conflict between food and biofuels have further stretched global food budgets. Finally, populations continue to boom in many parts of the world meaning food production has to grow every year just to keep up.

“We’ve not been producing as much as we are consuming. That is why stocks are being run down. Supplies are now very tight across the world and reserves are at a very low level, leaving no room for unexpected events next year,” Abdolreza Abbassian, an economist with the FAO, told the Guardian recently.

In fact, 2012 is expected to be the sixth year in the last eleven where global society consumes more food than it grows. This imbalance has caused many nations’ food reserves to fall significantly over the last decade.

Still experts say the current situation has yet to reach the crisis levels seen in 2008 or 2011. Crop yields have generally been good this year for wheat, rice, and sugar for example. But if next year sees more extreme weather events it could push crops and food prices into a danger zone.

Finally, the UN report also notes that while 870 million people worldwide still suffer from malnutrition, another 1.4 billion people worldwide suffer from obesity and related diseases, raising questions as to whether economic growth actually correlates with better nutrition.

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