Panel 2 - Undernutrition and malnutrition in the world

Malnutrition is an imbalance - a deficiency or an excess - in a person's intake of nutrients and other dietary elements needed for healthy living. Malnutrition can manifest itself as hunger (or undernutrition), deficiency in vitamins or minerals, or overfeeding. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that fully half of the human family, some 3 billion people, suffer from malnutrition of one kind or another. One out of five people in the developing world suffers from the worst of the variants of malnutrition - hunger. [Gardner2000]

It is well known that most undernutrition among the poor arises from inequitable food access, rather than from inadequate food production. More than enough food is produced the world over to feed the entire human population, but too much of it is not consumed directly by needy humans but used as animal feed. Despite this, demand for meat and milk in developing countries has been increasing dramatically. On average, the population of developing countries grew by 2.1% per year between 1970 and 1995 and total meat consumption grew 5.4% per year (increasing from 14 kg per capita in 1983 to 21 kg per capita in 1993) and total milk consumption grew 3.1% (increasing from 35 kg per capita in 1983 to 40 kg per capita in 1993) even if it remains only one fourth of the consumption in the developed world. [IFPRI1999]

The problem with farmed animals is that they use up considerably more food calories than they produce in the form of meat, milk and eggs: as "machines" which convert vegetal proteins into animal proteins they are dramatically inefficient. The ratio of transformation of animal feed into food for humans, varies depending on the species of farm animals and is 1:15 on average.

Organisations such the WHO, the FAO and the World Bank are all becoming increasingly concerned about the impact that raising animals industrially instead of crops has on the land and on our ability to feed the world efficiently. They state: "The increase in the consumption of animal products in countries such as Brazil and China (although still well below the levels eaten in North American countries and most other industrialised countries) also has considerable environmental repercussions. The number of people fed in a year per hectare ranges from 22 for potatoes and 19 for rice down to 1 and 2 people respectively for beef and lamb. Likewise, water requirements are likely to become a major issue during this century. Animal products again use far more of this resource than vegetables need to grow." [WHO/FAO2002].

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) asserts that a "Livestock Revolution" is taking place and projects that by the year 2020 the per capita consumption of meat in developing countries will amount to 30 kg - an increase of 43% from 1993 - and that of milk will amount to 62 kg - an increase of 30%. The total share of meat and milk produced in the developing world will shift from 36% to 47% and from 24% to 32% respectively. [IFPRI1999]

The only way this demand will be met will be through large-scale grain livestock feeding. Crops in the developing world are rapidly shifting from food production for human consumption to feed production for farm animals: In 1983 on average 128 million tons of grains where used for feeding animals, in 1993 the sum increased to 194 millions tons. During that decade, the use of feed increased by 4.2% per year, while the internal production increased by only 2.3% per year, thus forcing the developing countries to import grains from abroad. It is clear that shifting production from food to feed in order to fuel an inefficient transformation process and importing grains from affluent countries will badly exacerbate the malnutrition problem.

In developing countries, most poor people who eat properly consume little or no animal products, yet their diet - largely grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits - meets all nutritional requirements. Far more poor people can eat such a diet for the same cost as the number who can eat a diet that includes increased amounts of animal products.

The spread of large-scale livestock and dairy production to developing countries is being actively promoted by a number of private and public institutions. This promotion should be discontinued - for health and environmental reasons. The nutritional requirements of the 2-3 billion people now living on $2 a day or less, plus the additional 2 billion people expected to populate the world in the next 20 years, can only be met through an efficient traditional diet. Animal products are among the least efficient food sources available. [Goodland2001]

The developed world still holds the main responsibility in this waste of resources, as the major consumer of animal food. If the world's affluent countries could reduce their consumption of grain-fed livestock products by 10%, they could free up 64 million tons of grain for direct human consumption. This would cover world population growth for another 26 months. A 20% reduction would buy more than four years. And the health benefits would greatly lower health care costs. [Stewart1996]

Moreover, because of the "westernization" of diet, in some developing nations, such as China or Brazil, the rate of overfed people is more or less the same as that of underfed ones. Thus, developing nations will have to fight a health battle on two fronts, struggling to contain the spread of degenerative diseases such as heart disease and cancer even as infectious diseases continue to afflict masses of udernourished people. [Gardner2000]

Public health specialists are especially concerned about increases in degenerative diseases because the cost of treating each case is significantly higher than the cost of treating an infectious disease. Therefore, degenerative diseases pose a very serious challenge to poverty alleviation and to the overall economic stability of developing countries.


Gardner G., Halwell B., "Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition", World Wathc Institute Paper 150, March 2000

Goodland R., The Westernization of Diets - The Assessment of Impacts in Developing countries - with special reference to China, DRAFT, 2001

IFPRI, FAO, ILRI, "Livestock to 2020 - the next food revolution", IFPRI, May 1999

Stewart H. "Limits to growth: facing food scarcity", Canada EarthSaver, august/September 1996.

WHO/FAO, Diet, nutrition, and the prevention of chronic disease. Report of the Joint WHO/FAO expert consultation, 26 April 2002.