Investigating, Fixing Hidden Hunger

Wednesday Conference in Santa Barbara Addresses Global Micronutrient Deficiencies

Malnutrition has long been the loudest buzzword of humanitarians, and, according to a 2006 report by the World Bank, “remains the world’s most serious health problem.” Yet while most of the studies and efforts to address malnutrition have dealt with caloric intake, there’s an increasing awareness by aid workers, nutritionists, and economists that how much you eat isn’t the only important factor in health.

Rather, it’s what you eat that will determine your overall health – namely food containing vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients. If your diet is rich in those then you’ll have a better chance down the road of being economically productive. And if it’s lacking in micronutrients, then you’re likely to be trapped in the endless cycle of poverty, where no money begets low quality food, which begets poor nutrition, which begets bad health, which begets low school attendance, diminished energy for work, and lack of intelligence, which results in more poverty.

That’s the gist of what’s being talked about today, Wednesday, March 12, down at the Fess Parker DoubleTree, as the world’s foremost authorities on socioeconomics and nutrition – including two Nobel Laureates – debate “Hidden Hunger: Socioeconomic and Scientific Challenges.” To do so, more than 50 experts from at least 10 countries – including representatives from South America, Asia, and Europe – have been brought together by the Oxygen Club of California and Sight and Life, a humanitarian wing of the Dutch multinational corporation DSM. It’s a small part of the Oxygen Club’s 2008 World Congress, which runs until March 15.

The advertised agenda of the full-day event is two-fold: one, to set a course of research that will examine the scientific, economic, and social aspects of micronutrient malnutrition; and two, to put a price tag on this hidden hunger that will enable policymakers, leaders, health care providers, and the public understand the impact of micronutrient deficiencies on the global economy. It’s a critical convergence of thinkers because micronutrient malnutrition is not always obvious like the bloated bellies of underfed children, which makes it difficult to identify and even harder to convince decision-makers that it is a crucial problem.

But studies already show that this hidden hunger accounts for millions of child deaths and massively undercuts the economies of developing nations. And the timing to deal with this is now, for as Zulfiqar Bhutta of the Aga Khan University and Medical Center in Karachi, Pakistan offered in the morning session, “I think the world is positioned uniquely to see an end to these major micronutrient deficiencies over the next decade.”

In Bhutta’s fast-moving, highly informative speech, he also gave a thorough overview of the existing studies and persistent challenges of micronutrient malnutrition. This rundown showed that the answers to many of these problems are known, yet the word is not being spread effectively enough. For instance, although micronutrient malnutrition robs many countries of 5 percent of their GDP, it’s a problem that would only take 0.3 percent of the GDP to fix.

While great strides have been made in recent years, especially with Vitamin A and iodine programs, Butta explained, there is still much work to be done. “The stronger economic arguments we have,” said Bhutta, “that’s the best chance we have, because the ministries of finance control the purse strings.” In answering a question from the audience, he said that efforts by the salt industry and flour millers to fortify their products with micronutrients are promising examples of private-public partnerships. (For more info, see the Micronutrient Initiative’s webite.)

Nobel Laureate Daniel McFadden

In addition to Bhutta, the morning session included a statistic-heavy talk by Nobel Laureate Daniel McFadden, of UC Berkeley. In a talk laden with graphs and talk of “quintiles” and “linear regression,” McFadden gave supporting evidence to show that nutrition and health do indeed affect economic productivity and wealth. While he seemed to be cautious in drawing solid conclusions, McFadden said that the “obvious possible explanation” for disparities in developing countries “is nutritional deficiencies in childhood.”

The rest of the day will include more study-specific speeches on such micronutrients as Omega-3 fatty acids and iron as well as discussions about maternal nutrition and the brains of the elderly. It concludes with a roundtable discussion this afternoon.

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