Monday, October 18, 2010

World’s hungry billion and Sri Lanka’s increasing malnutrition crisis

By the Economist | The Sunday Times

Yesterday was World Food Day: the day set apart to remind the world that there is a grave problem of hunger in many parts of the world. There have never been as many hungry people in the world, as on World Food Day 2010 when there were about one billion hungry people in the world. There are many reasons for this heartbreaking situation the world over that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General Jacques Diouf, described as a “tragic achievement in these modern days".

Mahatma Gandhi, whose birthday anniversary was commemorated earlier this month on October 2, said: “There is enough food for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” Among the reasons for this situation are the unequal distributions of people to land and water resources in the world and the unequal distribution of incomes and poverty within countries. Expenditure on wars, rather than on the war on hunger is a fundamental cause that does not enable the poor to be given the necessary income support to obtain their minimum requirements of food. Some recent proximate reasons that have aggravated the situation are climate change, droughts, floods and forest fires causing soaring food prices. The financial crisis and economic recession has not helped either.

There are large numbers in Sri Lanka without adequate food: persons who are hungry, malnourished or undernourished. There is growing evidence of increasing malnutrition in Sri Lanka. The rising prices of food are likely to aggravate this situation, especially in households that do not produce food. Although the country does not have serious food shortages malnutrition affects nearly one-third of children and one quarter of women. Almost one out of five children are born with low birth weight and about 29 per cent of children under five are reported to be underweight, rising as high as 37.4 per cent, in some deprived districts.

The greatest tragedy of malnutrition is that it prevents children from reaching their full potential for growth and development. Malnutrition during childhood has serious and long lasting consequences. There are 14 per cent of children under five who suffer from acute malnutrition (wasting) when their weight is compared to the weight of a normal child of the same height. Nearly 58 per cent of infants between 6 and 11 months and 38 per cent children between 12 - and 23 months are anaemic. The government is conscious of this problem and has set in motion programmes to tackle it.

The level of incomes and the pattern of income distribution determine to a significant extent the access to enough food at the household level. Poverty is a foremost determinant of food insecurity that leads to undernourishment. Further the availability of sufficient food and the means to acquire enough food at the household and individual level does not ensure proper utilization of food and good health. The nutritional status of an individual depends on food as well as other factors such as clean water supplies, good sanitation, acceptable housing, and health care, besides others.

The immediate and underlying causes of childhood malnutrition in Sri Lanka range from disease factors and inadequate dietary intake to knowledge and cultural factors that influence the utilization of health services and available food. Poverty in its many manifestations (among these, low household income, inadequate basic infrastructure, limited access to media), affects nearly 23 per cent of households in Sri Lanka and is closely intertwined with household food security. However, while poverty is an important basic determinant of child under nutrition, it does not solely explain the high rates of child malnutrition prevailing in Sri Lanka. Other major determinants of malnutrition in the country include inappropriate feeding practices, micronutrient deficiencies and disease.

Despite the fact that exclusive breastfeeding levels have risen significantly, some babies are still being bottle-fed. Not only is such formula substitutes inferior to breast milk these do not contain colostrums, the first milk rich in proteins and antibodies that protect children from several infectious diseases. Therefore children should be exclusively breastfed in the first six months and should not be given the wrong kind of food.

Micronutrient deficiencies which affect healthy child growth and development are less obvious forms of under nutrition but constitute major public health problems in Sri Lanka. The most common micronutrient deficiencies in children and women are iodine deficiency disorders, which affect physical and mental development of children; iron – which leads to anaemia and impairs cognitive development in children; and vitamin A which affects eyesight and immunity to diseases. Vitamin A deficiency affects one third of children below 6 years of age and iron deficiency affects over one half of children 5-10 years old. One out of every five children suffers from iodine deficiency disorders – the single most important preventable causes of physical and mental retardation.

Diarrhoea continues to contribute to child under nutrition mainly due to inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Around one third of households have no access to sanitation and about one quarter has no access to safe drinking water. The wide disparities that prevail across the regions and districts of Sri Lanka create major challenges in dealing with malnutrition.

Dynamism in the rural and agricultural sectors is essential to narrow the rural-urban income gap and reduce rural poverty that is closely related to food security. The World Development Report 2008 (WDR) argued that an emphasis on agricultural investment, reforms and policies in agriculture are essential. It disclosed that agricultural and rural sectors in developing countries have suffered from neglect and underinvestment over the past 20 years. Only a mere 4 per cent of official development assistance was for agriculture.

Even in countries that are heavily reliant on agriculture for overall growth, public spending for farming is only a small proportion of total government spending. These are fundamental reasons for the soaring food prices we are experiencing and the large number of people in the world being hungry.

The World Bank argues strongly for more and better investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure. Higher levels of investment are needed by governments in science, agricultural research, infrastructure, and human capital. There should be better policies and institutions that are major drivers of agricultural productivity growth. Despite high returns on these investments, developing countries grossly under invest in these public goods.

In Sri Lanka, agricultural growth has been only 1.2 per cent per year and lagged behind those of other sectors. Production of several crops declined over a period of time and even when there was growth these have been modest. The yield levels attained in almost all crops is much less than the potential. This applies as much to plantation crops as to small holder agriculture.

Agricultural growth could contribute to reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Poverty and food insecurity are largely problems in the rural and estate areas in Sri Lanka. The development of Sri Lanka’s agriculture requires many thrusts. There has to be much more investment in research and rural infrastructure development. The agricultural extension services that are hardly serving its purpose should be reformed and reconstituted.

The problems of marketing of agricultural produce have to be resolved by developing storage and milling capacity, promoting competition and improving transport facilities. There should be more constructive private sector-public sector collaboration. Land policies require to be reformed in the context of current situations to permit land use on the basis of economic returns. Productivity increases in agriculture could play an important role in the reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

© The Sunday Times

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