Hunger and Malnutrition in the world
To be healthy and active, we must have food in adequate quantity, quality and variety to meet our energy and nutrient requirements. Without adequate nutrition, children cannot develop their potential to the fullest, and adults will experience difficulty in maintaining or expanding theirs.
Not everyone has adequate access to the food they need, and this has led to large-scale hunger and malnutrition in the world. Today, an estimated 925 million people are chronically undernourished and unable to obtain sufficient food to meet even minimum energy needs. Approximately 200 million children under five years of age suffer from acute or chronic symptoms of malnutrition; during seasonal food shortages, and in times of famine and social unrest, this number increases. According to some estimates, malnutrition is an important factor among the nearly 13 million children under five who die every year from preventable diseases and infections, such as measles, diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia, or from some combination of these.
The overwhelming majority of the undernourished are in developing countries, which account for 98 percent of the world’s undernourished people, but even in developed countries, undernourishment has become a growing concern, as more people find it increasingly difficult to get adequate food for themselves and their families.
At the regional level:
- Asia and the Pacific, the world’s most populous region, is home to the largest number of hungry people (578 million).
- SubSaharan Africa, with 239 million undernourished, has the largest prevalence of undernourishment relative to its population size (30 percent).
- The Near East and North Africa has 37 milllion hungry people.
- Latin America and the Caribbean, which in recent years has shown signs of improvement, has 53 million undernourished people.
Malnutrition is one of the prime causes of low birth-weight babies and poor growth. Low birth-weight babies who survive are likely to suffer growth retardation and illness throughout their childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, and growth-retarded adult women are likely to carry on the vicious cycle of malnutrition by giving birth to low birth-weight babies. Links between malnutrition in early life – including the period of foetal growth – and the development later in life of chronic health conditions such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure are also emerging. Some 30 million infants are born each year in developing countries with impaired growth caused by poor nutrition in the womb.
Malnutrition in the form of deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals continues to cause severe illness or death in millions of people worldwide. More than 3.5 billion people are affected by iron deficiency, 2 billion are at risk of iodine deficiency and 200 million pre-school children are affected by insufficient vitamin A. Iron deficiency can result in growth retardation, low resistance to disease, long-term impairment in mental and motor development and impaired reproductive functions; it contributes to approximately 20 percent of pregnancy-related deaths. Iodine deficiency may cause permanent brain damage, mental retardation, reproductive failure, decreased child survival and goiter. In an expectant mother, iodine deficiency can produce varying degrees of mental retardation in her infant. Vitamin A deficiency can result in blindness or death among children; it contributes to decreased physical growth and impaired resistance to infections, with consequent increased mortality in young children.
Even mild forms of these deficiencies can limit a child’s development and learning capacity early in life, which can lead to cumulative deficits in school performance, resulting in higher school drop-out rates and a high burden of illiteracy in our future populations. Many of the most severe health consequences of these three leading micronutrient deficiencies could be greatly alleviated by ensuring adequate food supplies and varied diets that provide essential vitamins and minerals.
In many countries, health problems related to dietary excess are an ever-increasing threat. Obesity in childhood and adolescence is associated with various health problems, and its persistence into adulthood leads to health effects ranging from an increased risk of premature death to several non-fatal but debilitating conditions that affect productivity. These emerging problems are not just limited to developed populations; an increasing number of developing countries are confronted with the double burden of undernutrition and chronic diet-related disease. In addition, food contamination from microbial agents, heavy metals and insecticides is a barrier to nutrition improvement in every country of the world. Food-borne diseases are common in many countries, and children are frequent victims, experiencing diarrhoea leading to underweight and wasting and high levels of child mortality.
Whether in their mildest or in their most severe form, the consequences of poor nutrition and health result in a reduction in overall well-being and quality of life, and in the levels of development of human potential. Malnutrition can result in productivity and economic losses, as adults afflicted by nutritional and related disorders are unable to work; education losses, as children are too weakened or sickly to attend school or to learn properly; health care costs of caring for those suffering from nutrition-related illnesses; and costs to society of caring for those who are disabled and, in some circumstances, their families as well.
Over the last century, remarkable progress was made in increasing the quantity and quality of global food supplies and in improving the nutritional status of populations. As global food supplies have kept pace with population growth, and health, education and social services have improved throughout the world, the number of hungry and malnourished has declined significantly. And yet, access to sufficient supplies of a variety of safe, good-quality foods remains a serious problem in many countries, even where food supplies are adequate at the national level. In every country, some form of hunger and malnutrition continues to exist.
Putting an end to hunger necessarily starts with ensuring that enough food is produced and available for everyone. However, simply growing enough food does not guarantee the elimination of hunger. Access by all people at all times to enough nutritionally adequate and safe food for an active and healthy life – food security – must be guaranteed. Worldwide, increased efforts to ensure food security are needed in order to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, and their devastating consequences, among current generations and those to come. The contribution of each and every one of us – through information sharing, caring and participating in activities – is imperative to ensuring the fundamental right of all human beings to be free from hunger.