Quality, not quantity, key to fighting hunger, Cornell experts say

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 2015 - Having a dialogue about global food security is nothing new, but two food policy and economics experts say academics and the media are simply having the wrong conversation.

In a briefing with reporters in Washington on Monday, Cornell professors Per Pinstrup-Anderson and Chris Barrett emphasized that the conversation around food security should be focused not around how much food can be produced, but rather the nutritional content of that food. As Pinstrup-Anderson put it, there needs to be a shift in the food value chain from a focus on economics to a focus on nutrition.

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“We need to look at the total food chain and make sure that what we're doing to this raw material that the farmers are producing is in fact improving nutrition every step of the way. That is not currently happening,” said Pinstrup-Anderson, the 2001 World Food Prize Laureate. “We need to focus on processing. What are we doing to this raw material? We are, in many cases, creating empty calories. Lots of sugar, lots of high fructose corn syrup, lots of fat, which presumably will meet what the consumer demand is.”

He said it would be beneficial to find “win-win” scenarios where providing nutritionally balanced food would also be to a company's economic advantage. Barrett, an agriculture and applied economics professor at Cornell, told reporters that from a calorie perspective, global food production is already sufficient to meet the needs of the world population.

“The narrative around food security being about hunger I'm afraid is increasingly off target,” Barrett said, adding that hunger and malnourishment statistics are “coming down reasonably quickly.”

“The narrative needs to be, instead, about micronutrient deficiency,” he said. He described micronutrient deficiency as “hidden hunger,” or a state where key vitamins and minerals are lacking. He said statistics on the issue are hard to come by, but the World Health Organization estimates that about 800 million people suffer from hunger worldwide, and there are “roughly 2 billion people or so who we know to be iron-deficient."

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“We don't even know how many people suffer some combination of micronutrient deficiencies,” Barrett said. “There are no credible estimates out there.” 

Barrett said in many instances, higher-income consumers can afford to buy products like vitamin-enriched milk and breads, but poorer people can't. That could be leading to a big problem, he said. 

“It's not about hunger, it's about bad diets,” Barrett said. “Bad diets that are, in part, the product of production that doesn't ensure that there's mineral and vitamin in food . . . because the processing that happens post-harvest isn't fortifying with essential vitamins and minerals enough and a lot of that is because consumers simply can't afford to pay for it.”

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