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More than a billion people undernourished worldwide

Sep 26, 2011

This year's World Disaster Report says rising food prices, impacts of climate change and an increasing population have contributed to food shortages resulting in millions of children with stunted growth and at least a billion undernourished people.

Every year about 3 million children die before they reach the age of five as a result of undernutrition, with the majority of deaths the result of long-term chronic hunger rather than famines and sudden food crises, according to a new report published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Nigeria school kids

The World Disasters Report says 178 million children under the age of five have stunted growth as a result of a lack of food.

The annual report, which this year focuses on hunger and malnutrition, says the rise in basic food prices, the impact of changing climate and an increasing population have pushed the number of people who are undernourished to at least 1 billion. Of these, around 60% are women. When food is scarce it is often women who receive less or give their share to their children.

Nutrition levels before birth and up to the age of two have a major impact on a child's future mental and physical health. "The critical period of growth and development is the 1,000 days from conception to a child's second birthday," the report says. "The problem of stunting has its roots in poor nutrition during this time: undernourishment during the foetal period contributes up to half of a child's failure to grow by the age of two."

Breastfeeding

The report highlights the "critical role" breastfeeding plays in the nutrition of babies and toddlers, but acknowledges that changing people's behaviour is "an uphill struggle". "Breastfeeding advocacy has always been hard to sell to donors when more exciting issues such as HIV and vaccination are competing for attention," it says.

Mother and child undernutrition has been widely neglected by national governments and the international community, although it is now getting more attention.

Last year a report – Scaling Up Nutrition: A Framework for Action, known as the SUN report – said the millennium development goals (MDGs) would not be achieved without "urgent attention to nutrition" and outlined a "road map" to tackle the problem. So far, 18 countries, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Laos, Niger and Peru, have announced plans to boost their efforts.

Nutrition also made it on to the agenda at this week's high-level summit on non-communicable disease in New York. The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, told the meeting: "The lives of millions of children are at stake. We can help them realise their physical and intellectual potential. Without proper nutrition the children and pregnant mothers will suffer irreversible damage."

This week also saw the launch of a campaign by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain), Future Fortified, to help ensure pregnant women, new mothers and young children receive critical nutrients, such as vitamin A, iodine, iron, zinc and folic acid.

Prioritise smallholders

As well as nutrition, the World Disasters Report says greater investment in agriculture is essential to provide enough food to feed the world. It argues that promoting smallholder farming could be the best way forward in Africa, rather than encouraging "capital-intensive oil-dependent largescale farming, which can lead to displacement of poor people and environmental damage".

David Peppiatt, international director of the British Red Cross, said: "It is distressing that such huge numbers of people are hungry and can't get enough food to eat for reasons that are avoidable. It's a sad fact that this is a disaster on a large scale, and the situation isn't improving … With the continuing volatility of global food prices it is essential that the most vulnerable are better prepared to cope with changing agricultural and food markets."

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