Sunday, December 07, 2008

Nutrition in Asia and the Pacific: An Ugly Portrait

Food and nutrition are human rights. International caucuses such as the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrine these and thus deem governments as duty-bound in ensuring that the right to food and nutrition, as part of the overall well-being of a person, is achieved by all of its citizens.

Much as food and nutrition are regarded as basic human rights, the problem of malnutrition persists in many Asian countries. In fact, the concentration of malnutrition in Asia is greatest compared to anywhere else in the world.
The Asian Development Bank reports that one in three preschool children is stunted,
rising to one out of every two children in the countries of South Asia such as India,
Bangladesh, and Nepal.

The most painful subject with regard to under nutrition is the human cost. In 1999 alone, an estimated 2.8 million child deaths in nine low-income Asian countries, or 51 percent of child deaths were associated with malnutrition. (The countries included are Bangladesh, Cambodia, PRC, India, Lao PDR, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam).

Different economic, political, and cultural characteristics in the region portray different faces of malnutrition. In many countries of the Asia-Pacifi c Region, under
nutrition is the most common. In some areas however, there are also incidences of over nutrition.

Under nutrition and over nutrition?
Under nutrition is a defi ciency of calories or of one or more essential nutrients. When individuals are undernourished, they can no longer maintain natural body capacities such as growth, resisting infections and recovering from disease, learning and physical work, and pregnancy and lactation in women.

Malnutrition is commonly understood as synonymous to under nutrition. But technically, malnutrition also refers to over nutrition like in the current epidemic of obesity and related diseases such as diabetes. Malnutrition occurs at all stages of the life cycle. Mothers suffering from under nutrition are more likely to give birth to stunted and thin babies. These children have very low probability of catching-up on the ideal height and weight ratio in the subsequent years. Consequently, their mental, physical, and social development lags behind and become less and less productive. Under nutrition becomes a vicious cycle unless decisive interventions are undertaken among least served populations.

The politics of nutrition
An essential aspect of combating a problem is to understand its nature. Otherwise, solutions will only prove to be artifi cial and futile. Malnutrition is as much a political problem as it is a health problem. One of the ironies in many agricultural societies is that the food producers themselves are the most malnourished. In both faces of malnutrition, access to basic health care and the capacity to obtain nutritious food increasingly become far-fetched for millions of families who live on a hand to mouth existence. The problem of malnutrition lies largely upon vulnerable populations due to very limited economic choices in life.

In developing countries, most food producers are either mere farmer-tenants or subsistence farmers who almost always end up with nothing after harvesting their produce.

The lack of government support and key infrastructures, as well as the rising cost of farm inputs pushed many farmers to leave their land idle due to lack of farming
capital (Ibon, 2008). In the Philippines, studies show that only 25 percent of rice paddies are irrigated while only two percent of the farmlands are mechanized. This problem is compounded by erroneous government economic and political policies. For instance, land conversion has seen at least 10,000 hectares being converted into agroindustrial and commercial land. Large tracts of existing agricultural lands have been devoted to planting high value crops such as cut fl owers, all of which tend to satisfy demands in the international market - to the neglect of the local demands for basic staples such as corn and rice. To fi ll the rising demand for basic food staples, the government embarked on food importation. However, this does not address the need for food security. In early 2008, the global downfall in rice production led to a rice shortage in the crisis.

“The government’s import dependence and indifference to the needs of millions of poor farmers is comparable to prescribing medicines that merely relieve symptoms
instead of diagnosing the real causes of disease,” said Dr. Eleanor Jara, executive director of the Philippine-based Council for Health and Development.

Rising food prices
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) estimated that for every one percent increase in food prices, 16 million people are threatened with food
insecurity. In Tajikistan, the high cost of food has been identifi ed as one of the reasons for its food security problem. The Food and Agricultural Organization has
identifi ed the Central Asian nation as one of the 22 countries with increased vulnerability to food prices. The causes of soaring food prices are varied, but one of the reasons cited is the changing weather patterns, which has resulted in the triple burden of drought, fl ood, and frosting.

The global food industry
Globally, food consumption pattern is shifting to Western diet, brought in part by the aggressive marketing – and lobbying – of the international food industry. In the case of the Pacifi c region, the shift in their diet is said to be one of the reasons for the growing number of obese islanders. When it comes to protecting their own interests, the global food and beverage industry can be quite rabid. In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO), together with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a technical report entitled “Diet, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases.” A contentious issue in the publication was its recommendation that sugar consumption should not exceed 10 percent of the daily diet. The response of the industry, particularly the sugar lobby, was nothing short of an arm-twisting: in a letter, it threatens the WHO that it would lobby the Congress to withhold the organization’s fund unless “the organisation accepts that all reports must be supported by the preponderance of science.”

The industry also exerts a considerable infl uence in key global health institutions. The International Life Science Institute, an industry-funded group, has a special consultative status at the FAO and an NGO observerstatus at the WHO, although the latter banned ILSI from participating in deliberations concerning microbiological or chemical standards for food and water after causeoriented groups protested its inclusion.

Continuing challenge
The problem on malnutrition goes beyond the people’s inability to provide their families with nutritious food. Food fortifi cation or feeding programs will not address the problem but will only provide artifi cial solutions and encourage incorrect eating habits. Governments should seriously consider identifying the root causes of the problem and laying out solutions guided by a strong political will to make a signifi cant difference in eradicating malnutrition.

Ibon Foundation 2001.

Asian Development Bank Nutrition and Development Series. Malnutrition in Asia and the Pacific

Thomas, David R. 2007. Merck Manuals. Undernutrition.

World Vision Asia Pacific Region
“Soaring food prices and the rural poor: feedback from the field”

Table source: Asian Development Bank figures,

By Katharina Anne D. Berza and Ross Mayor
An article printed in the Health Alert Asia Pacific, Issue 13 2008