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Growing Hungry

*N.I. Issue No 81: November 1979* It's official. Bigger harvests don't stop malnutrition. That's the conclusion lurking behind the jargon of a five country study conducted by the World Bank. They now agree that it takes more than an increased food supply to feed the hungry. With luck you can step up food production by offering farmers a better price for their crop. But this hits the landless workers who can't afford expensive grain. Outlined in the Bank's publication 'Finance and Development' by top nutrition advisor Alan Berg, the study pulls together information from Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Morocco and Pakistan. There are 150 million undernourished people in these five countries alone. With income predicted to lag behind food prices, the only way to combat hunger is to base development plans on the needs of the hungry.

    Advice begins with the Bank's ABC of nutrition planning:
  • Families with a low income spend most of it on food.
  • They eat different foods. In Indonesia the poor get 40 per cent of their calories from cassava and corn, but richer families only 14 per cent.
  • The balance between protein and calories is usually adequate. Proper distribution within the family - especially to the very young -- is a bigger problem.
  • Most of the hungry are landless labourers. For them bigger harvests can mean more work but less food.

Armed with these insights some pitfalls can be avoided. To begin with, grow the poor man's food. If Colombia's beef supply were upped by 10 per cent the calorie count of the rich man's diet would increase by three times as much as the poor man's. But a 10 per cent increase in cassava production would benefit the poor man almost exclusively. Next, be careful about encouraging farmers to sell their crops. Incomes may increase but food bought from shops often doesn't match the nutritional value of home-grown produce, Porridge made from commercially milled flour lacks important nutrients that are preserved by traditional ‘stamping' of grain. Women and children, at the end of the family food line are worst hit by shifts in agricultural production.

photograph of children

The study also offers advice to governments shying away from radical land reform and opting for food subsidies or ration programmes in order to combat malnutrition. This is a costly business. In the mid-seventies the Sri Lankan government gave rice rations to all who asked, and life expectancy soared to 66 years. But it took 16 per cent of the annual budget to pay for the food. And Egypt carved 21 per cent off its budget for a similar programme. Echoing the Bank's call for greater efficiency, Berg argues that the best way to keep costs down is to aim subsidies at the nutritionally needy. And the best foods to subsidise are those with a low cost per calorie or gramme of protein. Also important is 'positive income elasticity for the poor'. In other words chose a low status food like cassava in Colombia, lentils in central India, or macassor beans in Brazil. When the price goes down the poor buy more but the rich don't. The real trap is to subsidise high-status grain - like the rice or wheat that so often comes in foreign aid packages - which is gobbled up by the well fed middle class.

New Internationalist issue 090 magazine cover This article is from the August 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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