A Bangladeshi family whose successive floods have left little rice to put in their mouths. A teenager from the Central African Republic who only finds sorghum porridge in the camp for displaced people where she has taken refuge from the war. Some university roommates in Argentina whose scholarships do not give them more than to eat pasta and fried tomato almost every day of the week. Or an unemployed couple from Spain who depend on what they receive at the Food Bank in their neighborhood. They have very different origins and problems, but something unites them: they cannot afford a minimally healthy diet. There are three billion people, almost half of the world’s population, according to the most conservative estimates included in the report. The state of food security and nutrition, published annually by a group of the most expert UN agencies on the subject. In Africa and South Asia, 57% of the population cannot access this diet. In countries with permanent crises, 86% are deprived of it.
A minimally healthy diet is one that contains at least 2,300 calories and 69 grams of protein per person per day, in addition to the necessary micronutrients. Its cost, today, exceeds the international extreme poverty line, established at 1.9 dollars per person per day, making it unaffordable for the poorest. Eating healthy and well is on average five times more expensive than following a diet that simply satisfies energy needs through a starchy staple, such as the rice of the Bangladeshi family or the kilos of pasta of the Argentine students. “Every time we are going to see more families that with their wages and income will not be able to achieve a healthy diet,” warns Víctor Aguayo, director of nutrition of the UN Fund for Children (Unicef), participant in this report.
All these people in difficulty to eat well or to do it, without more, go on to swell the hungry statistics. Last year it was reported that there were 821 million in the world. This year there are 690 million, but they are more than the previous one. How is it possible? Because the figure is cheating. What has happened now is that for this 2020 edition the data from 13 countries have been updated and, therefore, the entire series for the last 15 years. Among these is China, which has a fifth of the world’s population and whose information was very out of date. The good news is for the Chinese: they have fewer hungry people than previously thought. The bad news is for the rest of the world.
In 2018, with the complete series updated, there were not 821 million hungry, but 678 million. Given that this year there are 690 million people who are hungry, we have worsened: 10 million more hungry in one year and 60 million more in the last five years. “What matters is what the new calculation tells us: that the situation continues to worsen”, warns during a telephone conversation Máximo Torero, chief economist of the UN organization for food and agriculture (FAO), which is another of the agencies signing this work.
It was in 2014 the last time the world saw a reduction in hunger. Now, those ambitious goals embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals of guaranteeing access to nutritious and sufficient food for all and ending hunger by 2030 are practically discarded and, furthermore, if this trend continues, within a decade we will not have neither zero nor 600 million hungry, but 840 million. “In 2005 we reached 895 million hungry people and we improved until 2014; now we would be going back to the nineties, when those food crises happened,” warns the FAO expert. Furthermore, the number of people affected by severe food insecurity, —who do not know if they will be able to eat the next day the minimum to survive— is 750 million, one in ten.
And where are those people? Especially in Asia, with 381 million inhabitants in this situation. It is followed by Africa, with 250 million, and Latin America, with 48 million. “If we continue this trend, in 2030 Africa will have the highest proportion of hungry people: 51.5%,” warns Torero.
It is not about imposing the same diet on all humanity; the choice depends on the country and the nutritional status of each individual. “What we need is a diversity of food that allows us to obtain all the micronutrients that are required. There are countries like Uganda that require consuming more meat to reach the necessary protein level, and there are others like the United States, that require the opposite: consume less. meat, “says Máximo Torero, FAO chief economist. “And it is important to say that a healthy diet is not necessarily vegetarian or vegan, these diets are not healthy by definition because they lack the vitamin B-12 component. The Mediterranean diet is healthy, the one based on fish can be too” , he warns.
To increase the affordability of healthy diets, the cost of nutritious food must be lowered, which requires interventions throughout the entire food supply chain to reduce losses and improve efficiency. A rebalancing of agricultural policies and incentives towards more nutrition-sensitive investment is also recommended. “Today, the majority of agricultural subsidies go to cereals: corn, soybeans … When they should go to high-value products to diversify the diet,” exemplifies the FAO expert.
“We should facilitate trade not only global but also interregional so that countries can obtain a greater variety of diets. Social programs, even, should be oriented towards the consumption of healthy diets. There are many measures that can be done quickly and could help improve this situation quickly. “
Despite the fact that the data regarding child malnutrition is reduced, in Unicef the fact that two out of three children under the age of five in low- or middle-income countries are receiving diets that do not meet their nutritional needs. “They may meet their energy needs, that is, they do not put the child at immediate risk of death, they will help them grow and develop more or less well, they are not under the threshold of malnutrition or above the threshold of they are overweight, but they may have deficiencies in vitamins, iron, zinc … These boys and girls are not going to develop their potential for physical growth and intellectual development, “says Aguayo.
If the world population ate a healthy diet, 97% of the costs derived from non-communicable diseases could be saved
The inadequacy of diets in children is leading to an increase in overweight and obesity in the child population, an epidemic that affects 40 million children in the world. “We are very concerned that when the public thinks of an unhealthy diet, they usually think of children who grow little, are short or are very thin, but we increasingly see how in low and middle income countries, and among the most high-income poor, such as Spain or the United States, that the vast majority of overweight children are that way because of a very low-quality diet that even provides them with more energy than they need to grow, but does not provide them with the necessary nutrients for a healthy life. adequate growth and development “, indicates the director of nutrition of Unicef. In Spain, in fact, 35% of children between the ages of eight and 16 are overweight.
To this worrying scenario must be added the novelty of 2020: the covid-19 pandemic, which worsens forecasts because it adds between 83 and 136 million hungry due to problems of access to food due to the subsequent economic recession. “When GDP falls, a lot of unemployment is generated, and that causes people not to be able to buy food,” describes Torero. Unicef estimates an increase of about six to seven million children with malnutrition due to the pandemic, according to Aguayo, unless “clear and determined” policies are applied to prevent it.
The hidden costs of eating poorly
The only possibility of reversing the numbers and reaching the goal set for 2030 is to carry out a transformation of the food system without it having an impact on production costs. The key is not how much we eat, rather what we eat. “We need to eliminate all forms of malnutrition, and that includes overweight and obesity, as well as malnutrition, delayed development … For that it is central to move towards the consumption of healthy diets,” illustrates Torero. “Those we consume today seek above all to achieve the necessary energy content and are based mostly on cereals, but they are not the ones that will lead us to eliminate all forms of malnutrition and will lead us to more non-communicable diseases and higher emissions. greenhouse effect “.
For the first time, this report calculates what it calls “hidden costs” of not eating a healthy diet. Torero explains it like this: “There are several ways to end hunger. The first, I give more food to everyone and I don’t worry about the quality. The second: I worry about the quality of the diet and I try to give everyone access The third is a bit more complicated: not only do I give you a healthier diet, I also give you the most sustainable one. The higher you go up the ladder, the more expensive that diet is, but what we have found is that the healthiest diet has additional benefits that we had not quantified until now. “
There are two hidden costs: on the one hand, we spend 1.1 billion euros on treating non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and other cardiovascular problems caused by poor diet. Of this millionaire amount, humanity could save 97%. On the other hand, we also dedicate 1.2 trillion euros in costs derived from greenhouse emissions, of which we could save between 41% and 74%.