In August, I had the privilege of speaking at the third annual Ancestral Health Symposium, which focused on an evolutionary approach to nutrition and health. The title of my talk, “Give them grains? Analyzing approached to world hunger”, was intentionally provocative as this group has pretty negative views of the role of grains in human nutrition. I wanted to get people’s attention because, quite often, the response I get from this community is that they care about making healthy choices for themselves, whether or not those choices are sustainable or widely accessible. While I understand this view, opting out of the conversation about our global food future means that we are less likely to develop a food system that meets the demands of health-conscious people. As it happens, I also care about the accessibility of food, especially for the poor. What follows is the content of my presentation at AHS13.
According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization, there are more than 850 million starving people in the world. Moreover, there are a staggering 2 billion malnourished people. In fact, malnutrition kills 2.6 million children each year, and 1 in 4 children experience irreversible stunted growth. Vitamin A deficiency alone affects 250 million preschool-aged children; many become blind as a result, and half of the children who become blind die within a year.
Clearly, when we think about how to feed the world, we need to be considering the nutritional value of food as well as its caloric yield. Calories may keep a starving person alive for a day or a week, but to have someone survive for months, years, or decades, nutrition is key.
To really determine whether eating more corn can help feed the world, we need to consider the type of food produced in this system and the trade-offs between corn and other crops.
But let’s forget about calories for a moment. Given that billions of people in the world are malnourished, what are the relative amount of micronutrients that corn would deliver in each of these systems? I chose two micronutrients, vitamin A and folate, for this analysis because deficiencies are known to cause serious, life-threatening health problems.
I want to thank Eric Huff and Tess McEnulty for their assistance with this project and the Ancestral Health Society for creating a forum for this type of work. Additional citations and background for the calculation of the caloric yield of corn can be found in my previous post. Supporting materials for the hunger assessment by country and specific inputs and outputs of the conventional food system can be found in my 2012 AHS talk, which is described in detail here.