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Combatting hidden hunger is key to boosting good nutrition

June 8, 2015

There are certain things that all human beings need to survive and food is one of them. Aside from food as a biological necessity, it is also a complex cultural product shaped by agriculture, climate, geography and the pursuit of pleasure. Once a practical necessity, food has evolved into an indicator of cultural identity and social standing.

Yet for many food has one purpose – survival. For such people, even acquiring subsistence meals becomes a daily struggle. Some 795 million persons do not have enough food to eat each day, according to the State of Food Insecurity in the World Report 2015, and 2 billion experience some form of “hidden hunger” or micronutrient deficiency. This is the chronic yet often invisible lack of vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy life.

Food security is of paramount importance, but what about nutritional security? Nutritional security is different from food security; it is about access to essential nutrients, not just calories. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals, established in 2000 and due to expire this year, made halving the number of people who suffer from hunger a key target. As a result, access to food has greatly improved but the impact of increasing population, related land shortages and climate change mean the problem of hunger is by no means solved. Hunger has a new face that will not be solved by yield gains alone.

Hidden hunger is a cross-sectorial problem that needs an interconnected response from the global development community. In addition to harming health, hidden hunger also wreaks economic havoc, locking people into cycles of poverty and lost productivity.

Photo: S. Mojumder/Drik/CIMMYT

Photo: S. Mojumder/Drik/CIMMYT

Agriculture makes a difference

Many populations with micronutrient deficiencies consume cereal- or tuber-based diets, which may provide adequate protein and energy, but insufficient amounts of such micronutrients as vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, iron and zinc. So, how can nutritional security be stimulated in these contexts? Diversifying diets to include a wider range of food products has to be a priority, but is not always an option for those who have limited financial resources or limited access to food. Therefore it is important to pursue other opportunities that will ensure an adequate supply of vital micronutrients or help people understand how to eat a proper diet: nutritional education, supplementation and fortification.

Here at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), biofortification – the conventional plant breeding and lab work to enhance the micronutrient content of food crops – is one part of the approach to combat malnutrition. The first step concerns breeding maize and wheat to increase their micronutrient content to a level that has a significant impact on human nutrition. The second is ensuring that the extra nutrients are bioavailable – that is, absorbed from the diet and used for normal body functions. Finally, farmers must be willing to adopt biofortified crop varieties and consumers willing to eat them.

CIMMYT is using this approach to enhance the pro-vitamin A and zinc levels in maize and the iron and zinc concentrations in wheat. Boosting the micronutrient content of crops through biofortification can help tackle hidden hunger, simultaneously improving human health and economic growth.

Breeding maize to increase pro-vitamin A content is one step to help the 4.4 million pre-school children and 20 million pregnant women who suffer from vitamin A deficiency worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, zinc deficiency is associated with 800,000 deaths each year. Increasing the zinc content in wheat grain, which globally provides 20 percent of protein and calories consumed, is an important tool to fighting stunting, impaired immune function, skin disorders, cognitive dysfunction and other health problems associated with zinc deficiency.

“CIMMYT beneath the majesty of nature, before dusk falls and after a light rain”—this image by Hedilberto Velazquez Miranda of the wheat germplasm bank is one of three runners up this week in our photo competition for CIMMYT staff and friends, all showing this stunning rainbow that appeared over CIMMYT's El Batán, Mexico headquarters on 25 September. Photo credit: H. Velazquez Miranda/CIMMYT.

“CIMMYT beneath the majesty of nature, before dusk falls and after a light rain”—this image by Hedilberto Velazquez Miranda of the wheat germplasm bank is one of three runners up this week in our photo competition for CIMMYT staff and friends, all showing this stunning rainbow that appeared over CIMMYT’s El Batán, Mexico headquarters on 25 September.Photo credit: H. Velazquez Miranda/CIMMYT.

The success of pro-vitamin A maize in Zambia is just one example of how CIMMYT works with partners to bring biofortified products to consumers. Zambians eat on average 130 kilograms of maize a year, providing half their calories but very little pro-vitamin A (ProVA), which is essential for good vision and maintenance of the immune system. Hybrids developed by CIMMYT and released in 2012 by HarvestPlus and the Zambian Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) showed ProVA levels 400 percent higher than common yellow maize, with the potential to bring widespread health benefits.

Since 1990 the number of persons lacking access to food has decreased by 39 percent, according to the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI) – a significant achievement. In this new era of UN Sustainable Development Goals, we must move away from the standard doctrine of assessing hunger and malnutrition purely in terms of the quantity of food available.

Hidden hunger can be overcome; the health and wellbeing of millions depends on doing so. Let us do more to address malnutrition and hunger to ensure food and nutritional security, the most basic rights for all.