Inside Story
Child hunger: The world's 'greatest shame'?
With 2.6 million children dying of malnutrition every year, we ask what it would take to save a starving generation.
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2012 11:15

Aid agency Save the Children has launched a report and survey examining what the world's hungriest children are eating and the tough choices parents are making amid rising food prices.

"The issue with stunting is that if it happens in the first two years of your life, it's very, very difficult to repair and reverse that. It tends to be irreparable in most of these situations. If we can focus efforts on that 1,000-day window from conception until the second birthday, we will have a transformational impact."

- Brendan Cox, the director of policy and advocacy for Save the Children

The report entitled A life free from hunger says 300 children are dying of malnutrition each hour, totaling 2.6 million every year.

It also looks at the lost potential of 170 million children who are physically and mentally stunted and therefore set to earn 20 per cent less than their healthier counterparts.

A year of record food prices has forced millions of parents in the developing world to cut back on food for their children, says the agency.

The survey was conducted with families in India, Bangladesh, Peru, Pakistan and Nigeria.

One-in-six parents said their children were abandoning school to help out by working for food.

"The emphasis in the developed world has been on too much food, going by the debates on the European Union's common agricultural policy. Not so long ago we were worrying about wine lakes, cereal mountains and milk lakes, and they were just an artefact of a very distorted system."

- Richard Tiffin, the director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the report is that there are numerous viable solutions to this crisis that are not being exercised because of failed public policy and chronic under-investment.

Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, one of the countries surveyed, describes chronic malnutrition as the country's greatest shame.

What or who is responsible for this tragedy? Is food aid the solution? Or are there other ways of tackling child malnutrition? And what is at stake for the world's children if the crisis continues? What would it take to save a starving generation?

Joining Mike Hanna on Inside Story are guests: Wilfred Nyangena, a professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Nairobi; Richard Tiffin, the director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading and a professor of Applied Economics; and Brendan Cox, the director of Policy and Advocacy with Save the Children.

"One idea is to diversify a lot of the foods eaten in many parts of Africa. The Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation is looking at alternative foods like millet and potatoes. If those can be fortified alongside the upcoming initiatives, that will go a long way to alleviate the malnutrition problem among children."

Wilfred Nyangena, a professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Nairobi

Suggested solutions:

Save the Children has suggested direct nutrition intervention and fortification of staple foods. The World Bank estimates that it would cost just $1 per person per year to greatly improve the lives of more than four billion people. This amount could play a major role in keeping families above the poverty line. The report also suggests improving the global food system, investing primarily in local small scale farmers and particularly women who comprise some 50 per cent of this marginalised sector.

Other experts suggest urban food production, such as growing food on rooftops and public lands; genetic engineering, which promises to increase crop yields per unit area of farmland, and also enable crops to grow in conditions unsuitable for normal crop varieties; true land reform that will put good quality land in the hands of those who would sow it rather than those who can afford to buy it; social protection such as in Brazil, which has notably shown that assistance in the form of grants to families not only lowers malnutrition but stimulates economic growth.
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