Nutrition is both a maker and a marker of development. Improved nutrition is the platform for progress in health, education, employment, empowerment of women and the reduction of poverty and inequality, and can lay the foundation for peaceful, secure and stable societies.

~ Ban Ki-moon Secretary-General of the United Nations

One of the most complicated problems of sustainable development is how the world will feed itself. An increase in global wealth can hardly address the problem of hunger. After the Green Revolution in terms of high-yield crop varieties in the 1960s, it seemed that food production would inevitably take care of the burgeoning world population.

Alas, we have now realised that hunger is virtually endemic in most parts of the world and a large percentage of humanity is poorly fed. The number of hungry people is growing and multiple forms of malnutrition are evident in many countries. Millions of people are going to sleep every night with pangs of hunger. Even developed countries cannot boast of being completely free from hunger.

The latest United Nations report entitled ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018’ confirms that the number of hungry people has been growing over the past three years, rising to 821 million in 2017 or one in every nine people in the world. The situation is worsening in South America and most regions of Africa; likewise, the decreasing trend in undernourishment that characterised Asia until recently seems to be slowing down significantly.

The number of undernourished people has declined in China, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka but has increased in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. However, India still accounts for the world’s largest population of undernourished people and is home to about one in every five undernourished persons. The report summarizes the most recent trends in hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. It also signals that we are not on track to achieve any of the six Sustainable Development Goals, indeed nutrition targets by 2025 or 2030.

At the end of the 18th century when Thomas Robert Malthus in his An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) dwelt on the basic challenge of feeding the world’s population, which was then around 900 million. Since then, the population has increased by a factor of eight. With 7.8 billion people on the planet and the growth of global population at the current rate around 83 million per year, the awesome vision for the future of mankind, penned by Malthus more than two centuries ago, still haunts us.

Neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich also extended Malthus’ theory on population growth by asserting that humans were going to fail in the battle against hunger. The problem is even more complicated than Malthus could have imagined, for four major reasons ~ a significant share of the world population is affected by malnutrition; the global population continues to grow; climate variability and other environmental changes aggravate the food crisis; and the food system itself is a major contributor to climate change and other environmental problems.

Malnutrition is a pervasive problem. It occurs at all stages of the life-cycle. It is marked by chronic hunger or undernourishment. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines chronic hunger as the insufficient intake of energy (calories) and proteins. The term Protein- Energy Malnutrition (PEM) applies to the group. Hundreds of millions of people are afflicted by chronic hunger and have only the energy for mere survival. The FAO estimated that about 815 million of the 7.4 billion people in the world were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2016. Almost all the hungry people live in the developing countries.

Malnourishment caused by deficiencies of micronutrients ~ vitamins and minerals ~ is known as ‘hidden hunger’, because those suffering from it do not show the physical symptoms usually associated with hunger and malnutrition. Around 2 billion people in the world or one in three persons are deprived of essential vitamins and minerals, which ‘weakens the immune system, stunts physical and intellectual growth, and can also lead to death.’

Hidden hunger, a silent epidemic, perpetuates the cycle of poverty, poor nutrition, lost productivity and dismal economic growth. The other end of the malnourishment spectrum is caused mainly by excessive intake of calories. It is called obesity, meaning that the person’s weight is much too high for his/her height. It has been estimated that roughly one-third of all adults in the world are overweight, and around 10-15 per cent are obese.

Beyond hunger, a malnourished person doesn’t get nutrients that he requires. The numbers are staggering. Around 821 million people are chronically hungry. Perhaps another one billion have enough macronutrients (calories and proteins) but suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies. Roughly one billion are obese. Around three billion people are malnourished out of a world population of 7.8 billion, meaning that a staggering 38 per cent of the world is malnourished. This is not exactly where we would want the world to be more than 200 years after Malthus warned us about the chronic crisis of food insecurity.

The food security report mentions the role of climate variability and extremes in fuelling global hunger. The number of extreme climate-related disasters, such as a heat wave, droughts, floods and storms has doubled since the early 1990s, with an average of 213 of these natural calamities occuring annually during 1990-2016. High temperatures in general will be harmful for food production in the poorest and tropical part of the world.

Changes in climate are already undermining production of major crops (wheat, rice or corn) in tropical regions. At high temperatures, crops may not develop at all, seeds may become infertile, and plant respiration can lead to a net reduction of the yield of farm crops. The warm season is longer; spring arrives about a week earlier in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

The farm system emits three of the major greenhouse gases ~ CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. Indiscriminate application of pesticides and herbicides and widespread adoption of monoculture farming have caused a sharp decline in biodiversity that eventually reduces crop productivity as well as other ecosystem functions. Moreover, agriculture is a voracious consumer of water, and that water itself is under threat.

Good nutrition is the lifeblood of sustainable development. The FAO states: ‘The impact of nutrition on labour productivity, health and education ultimately filters through to higher levels of overall economic growth.” The World Bank has estimated that each year malnutrition results in the loss of 46 million years of productive life, at a cost of $16 billion annually, several times the cost of ending hunger and turning this loss into productive gain.

The latest estimate reveals that India is home to more than 50 per cent of the world’s ‘wasted’ children and more than 30 per cent of the world’s stunted children. In the context of the UN report, human ingenuity for the creation of a sustainable farm system around the world is imperative.

The system involves behaviour change, public awareness, political and individual responsibility and adoption of new technology that can reduce the pressure on the natural environment. Sustainable agriculture and food security remains a formidable challenge. In the words of John F. Kennedy: “Our problems are man-made ~ therefore, they can be solved by man. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.”

The writer is a retired IAS officer.