“Malnutrition is definitely a global problem,” said Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food at the Brot für die Welt meeting in Berlin.
Photo: © Andreas Schoelzel/Brot für die Welt

No one-size-fits-all solution for hidden hunger

It has now been accepted in the international debate that adequate nutrition does not merely mean “being filled”. Strategies suited to face the global challenge of malnutrition were discussed at a conference hosted by the development organisation Brot für die Welt in Berlin, Germany.

Today, two billion people are malnourished, i.e. they are suffering from “hidden hunger”. This means that their diet does not contain enough micronutrients such as proteins, vitamins, iodine, iron or zinc. Two thirds of the malnourished – 1.4 billion people – are women and girls. Furthermore, around a third of the people world-wide are overweight, with the number of overweight children on the rise. Reason enough to consider what has to change in the global food system. More than one hundred experts from politics and society met to this end in late September on the invitation of the Church development organisation Brot für die Welt in Berlin. Under the motto “… neither fish nor fowl?! Strategies to combat world-wide malnutrition put to the test”, they discussed meat consumption and overfishing, value chains, gender issues and the role of agribusiness.

Promoting women’s participation

There are a wide range of reasons for malnutrition: insufficient access to farmland, poor soils, a lack of agronomic knowledge and knowhow and skills in tilling, absence of or poor access to health centres and medicine, lack of clean drinking water and inadequate disposal of faeces, but also too little time for breastfeeding or for looking after frail members of the family, to name just a few. Only a careful analysis of the respective causes can give clues to how to tailor measures to eradicate malnutrition to people’s needs, the participants agreed. The crucial role of women as mothers and providers of food played a prominent role throughout the event. “Women are the key link in feeding the family. Their status in the context of nutrition therefore ought to be reconsidered,” maintained United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Hilal Elver. This demand is also centred on in the new study “Gleichberechtigung – das beste Rezept gegen Mangelernährung” (Equality – the best recipe against malnutrition), which Brot für die Welt presented at the meeting. Strategies against undernourishment and malnutrition had to address all levels – the family, community, national and international levels. It was crucial for politics to create the legal foundations and structures and to support women and girls in actively participating in the decision-making processes and the implementation of their results.

Trade and corruption

The influence of agribusiness on the population’s nutrition situation was also critically reviewed. Alone 40 per cent of European food exports goes to the ACP countries; from 2003 to 2014, the European Union more than doubled its exports to these countries. Grain, meat and milk powder account for a major share of the products. However, such exports are often at the cost of food production in the countries of destination. Yvonne Takang, managing director of Association Citoyenne de Défense des Intérêts Collectifs (ACDIC) explained this phenomenon using the example of chicken production. In the 1980s, Cameroon had still been self-supplying as far as chicken meat was concerned. By and by, all local production succumbed to the unrivalled prices of imports from the EU. Cameroon then imposed an import ban on chicken meat in a bid to re-establish and promote local production. However, Takang says that traditional chicken production is by far not enough to cover the country’s demand. She maintains that smallholders will have no other option but to switch to modern production methods – a venture that is going to take some time.

However, Takang told the meeting that despite all efforts, imported produce such as chicken, rice or potatoes would always be cheaper than locally produced food owing to the latter’s higher production costs. Profit scored with the imports by a small number of government representatives was a further obstacle. Here, Takang criticised donors, western governments and organisations, in particular, maintaining that: “Corruption is the key problem in Africa. And as long as international organisations donate money, they are supporting corruption.”

The participants at the conference demonstrated other examples of the negative impacts that food imports from the EU were having – such as chicken in Liberia, rice in Senegal or milk powder in West Africa. The latter was criticised in particular. For example, Germany’s Minister of Agriculture, Christian Schmidt, is eager to tap new markets for German milk powder. But, the participants emphasised, milk powder could be produced and processed in the African countries themselves. However, this was not in the interest of many European firms which were buying themselves into dairy companies in West Africa and processing their own milk powder there without considering the local producers.

The conclusion drawn at the conference was that malnutrition is not an individual problem but a global one. Therefore, global strategies need to be developed that promote local food production in the long run. The keyword here is food sovereignty. Above all, those ought to be offered support who are really working in agriculture. And the current agribusiness system has to be changed, for in its present form, it is substantially contributing to the problem of worldwide malnutrition.


Marijke Lass, journalist, Berlin/Germany