Hid­den Hunger

There are many types of hunger. If we want to feed the world, we should not only pay atten­tion to the quan­ti­ty but also to the qual­i­ty of food.

Every eighth per­son in the world goes to bed hun­gry every day. Accord­ing to esti­mates by the Food and Agri­cul­ture Orga­ni­za­tion (FAO), which belongs to the Unit­ed Nations (UN), this is 821 mil­lion peo­ple. Most of the hun­gry are at home in Africa. About three-quar­ters live in rur­al areas – where food is cul­ti­vat­ed. The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, enough food would be avail­able if the dis­tri­b­u­tion were fair and the only cause of hunger. Accord­ing to the FAO, food pro­duc­tion would have to increase by at least 60% by 2050 if the esti­mat­ed 9 bil­lion peo­ple liv­ing there were to be sat­is­fied.

What is hunger?

The FAO defines hunger as when the dai­ly ener­gy intake over a pro­longed peri­od remains below the lev­el required for a healthy body. The min­i­mum food intake required is assessed by this UN organ­i­sa­tion at approx­i­mate­ly 1,800 calo­ries per day. But hunger is not only the result of too few calo­ries; it has var­i­ous forms.

Accord­ing to the Ger­man aid organ­i­sa­tion World Hunger Relief (Welthunger­hil­fe), based in Bonn, there are three dif­fer­ent types of hunger:

  • Chron­ic hunger:
    Con­stant or reg­u­lar sea­son­al mal­nu­tri­tion, hich affects both the quan­ti­ty and the qual­i­ty of food.
  • Acute hunger:
    Severe mal­nu­tri­tion for a lim­it­ed peri­od, for exam­ple, as a result of nat­ur­al dis­as­ters.
  • Mal­nu­tri­tion:
    Lack of nutri­tion caused by an absence or insuf­fi­cient amount of nutri­ents and/or vit­a­mins.

Lack of micronu­tri­ents

For some time now, sci­en­tists, led by Pro­fes­sor Hans Kon­rad Biesal­s­ki of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hohen­heim, near Stuttgart, have been point­ing out that mal­nu­tri­tion, which is also referred to as hid­den or silent hunger, is a major prob­lem. The three sta­ple foods of rice, maize and wheat cov­er about 80% of the dai­ly calo­rie require­ments of one third of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, but they lack micronu­tri­ents such as vit­a­mins, min­er­als, trace ele­ments, essen­tial fat­ty acids and amino acids.

80 %

of the dai­ly calo­rie require­ment cov­er the three sta­ple foods rice, corn and wheat for one third of the world’s pop­u­la­tion.

Nutri­tion expert Prof Biesal­s­ki warns us not to see world hunger sim­ply as an insuf­fi­cient quan­ti­ty of food. If mal­nu­tri­tion starts in the mother’s womb, this has a neg­a­tive impact on the phys­i­cal and men­tal devel­op­ment of a child. With increas­ing pover­ty, the hid­den hunger of mal­nu­tri­tion is also becom­ing more com­mon in high­ly devel­oped coun­tries like the USA and in Europe. Peo­ple with lit­tle mon­ey to spend rely main­ly on ener­gy-rich or fat­ty foods. This results in poor­er peo­ple becom­ing over­weight – as para­dox­i­cal as this may seem at first sight, as a con­se­quence of mal­nu­tri­tion.

Accord­ing to the FAO, food pro­duc­tion would have to increase by at least 60 % by 2050 if the esti­mat­ed 9 bil­lion peo­ple liv­ing there were to be fed.

Zinc defi­cien­cy in cere­als

Pro­fes­sor Ismail Cak­mak, of Saban­ci Uni­ver­si­ty in Istan­bul has tak­en up the cause of fight­ing against mal­nu­tri­tion by improv­ing the diet of peo­ple by adding more micronu­tri­ents, which also include trace ele­ments. When this agri­cul­tur­al sci­en­tist dis­cov­ered about twen­ty years ago in Ana­to­lia that zinc defi­cien­cy was the cause of stunt­ed growth in cere­als, result­ing in declin­ing yields, this caused a minor sen­sa­tion. Before that time, the link between the zinc-defi­cient soils of Ana­to­lia and dis­eases in plants and humans had not been explained.

Although Prof Cak­mak has been involved in the inter­na­tion­al Har­vest Zinc Fer­til­iz­er Project since 2008, there is still much work to be done. Almost half of the world’s grain crops suf­fer from zinc defi­cien­cy. This results in small­er har­vests with a low­er zinc con­cen­tra­tion in the grain, and con­se­quent­ly also in grain-based foods, as the 55-year-old explained at a con­fer­ence of the Insti­tute of Applied Plant Nutri­tion (IAPN), a col­lab­o­ra­tion project of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Göt­tin­gen in Ger­many and the Ger­man fer­tilis­er pro­duc­er K+S Kali. With the devel­op­ment of bet­ter fer­til­i­sa­tion meth­ods and the breed­ing of new vari­eties of crops which can absorb more zinc from the soil and store it in their grain, Prof Cak­mak hopes that it will be pos­si­ble to fur­ther improve the sit­u­a­tion in Turkey and in devel­op­ing and emerg­ing coun­tries.

Sele­ni­um: impor­tant but unknown

Less well known than zinc, the trace ele­ment sele­ni­um is found in humans in all our tis­sues and is a build­ing block for about twen­ty types of pro­teins. It is also part­ly respon­si­ble for keep­ing our immune sys­tem healthy. Despite its impor­tant ben­e­fits, most peo­ple know noth­ing about it, even though sele­ni­um-enriched veg­eta­bles are sold in the UK. When the major retail­er Wait­rose offered sele­ni­um-enriched bread, con­sumers respond­ed with less enthu­si­asm than had been hoped for. Peo­ple sim­ply did not realise what health ben­e­fits they might derive from this.

Not only peo­ple but also ani­mals can be affect­ed by sele­ni­um defi­cien­cy. This is a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem in the upland and hill farm­ing areas of the UK, where the soils tend to have an even low­er sele­ni­um sta­tus than in the low­lands. James Evans, a Shrop­shire beef and sheep farmer, start­ed giv­ing extra sele­ni­um to his live­stock ten years ago, using rumen bolus­es that also con­tain cobalt and iodine. “We saw a huge dif­fer­ence in our breed­ing per­for­mance due to reduced num­bers of retained cleans­ings and increas­ing fer­til­i­ty.”

Blood test­ing and for­age analy­sis accu­rate­ly tell farm­ers when their live­stock are lack­ing in sele­ni­um. Vet Har­ri­et Fuller, based in Here­ford­shire, says: “Farm­ers are gen­er­al­ly pro­vid­ing ade­quate sup­ple­men­ta­tion but we do still come across live­stock where we diag­nose sele­ni­um defi­cien­cy as the cause of infer­til­i­ty.” Ms Fuller favours bolus­es and drench­es over min­er­al licks, but has also seen good results from fer­tilis­er. “Bolus­es can last up to six months, cov­er­ing the whole of the graz­ing peri­od. Drench­ing might be best for lambs because they might not be on the farm long enough to war­rant bolus­es. But min­er­al licks give uneven use: some will take a lot and some won’t take any.”

Iron: impor­tant for blood for­ma­tion

Although iron occurs very com­mon­ly in nature – this ele­ment makes up 28% of the Earth’s mass and more than 5% of the Earth’s con­ti­nen­tal crust, many peo­ple only have very low lev­els of this trace ele­ment in their bod­ies. In Europe this is five to ten per­cent. Chil­dren and preg­nant women are par­tic­u­lar­ly at risk because they have a high­er require­ment for iron for their blood orma­tion. Iron is impor­tant for the syn­the­sis of the red blood pig­ment (haemo­glo­bin).

Although iron is promi­nent­ly rep­re­sent­ed in nature, many peo­ple suf­fer from anaemia caused by iron defi­cien­cy. In Europe this is five to ten per­cent.

Iron defi­cien­cy can also occur in plants, even if this trace ele­ment is present in the soil in large quan­ti­ties. The pH val­ue of the soil is a crit­i­cal fac­tor in this. The more alka­line the soil is, the less iron will be received by plants. The iron occur­ring in a water-insol­u­ble form in the soil must first be chem­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied by plants before it can be trans­port­ed into their cells. The most com­mon­ly used strat­e­gy of plants affect­ed by iron defi­cien­cy is to release pro­tons through their roots into the soil to acid­i­fy it around their roots so that the iron will dis­solve bet­ter. Grass­es such as maize, wheat and rice have an addi­tion­al strat­e­gy They emit so-called phy­tosiderophores which form a neu­tral com­plex with the iron, which is then drawn in by a spe­cif­ic trans­port sys­tem into the root cells.

Farm­ers have three main ways of com­bat­ting iron defi­cien­cy in plants: Iron fer­til­i­sa­tion around the leaves or roots of the plants, cul­ti­va­tion of suit­able vari­eties or cul­ti­va­tion of mixed crops. Accord­ing to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta in the USA, when oats are plant­ed as a mixed cul­ture, this will improve the iron sup­ply for soya beans, because the oats pre­vent a sur­plus of nitrates and exces­sive damp­ness of the soil.

An inte­grat­ed approach is essen­tial

Farm­ers are at the begin­ning of the food chain. They have a respon­si­bil­i­ty for feed­ing the pop­u­la­tion. If, for exam­ple, they grow their crops on land which is poor in nutri­ents, the prod­ucts can hard­ly be bet­ter than the soil they grew in, even if pro­fes­sion­al cul­ti­va­tion meth­ods are applied. To pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing, con­sul­tants, researchers and indus­try are request­ed to sup­port farm­ers. Politi­cians also must not remain idle, because impor­tant issues such as the nutri­tion of the pop­u­la­tion are the con­cern of a gov­ern­ment which aims to ensure that all its cit­i­zens have access to food in suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties and of a good qual­i­ty. Final­ly, the con­sumers them­selves have respon­si­bil­i­ties too. If eat­ing habits lead to diet-relat­ed dis­eases, a rethink of these habits is required.