Resources Articles

Could animal-sourced protein really solve the world’s hunger crisis?

Each year, 161 million children under the age of five lack the nutrients they require for their development. This malnourishment causes stunting – both physical and cognitive – and ultimately costs our world 3.5 trillion US dollars in economic impacts each year. In a world where extreme poverty has fallen in recent decades, this ‘hidden hunger’ can often be forgotten.

With such a huge problem to tackle and FAO’s World Hunger Day on October 16th, we spoke to Dr Delia Grace, Programme Director at International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in East Africa. The Institute works to improve food security and reduce poverty in developing countries through research on better and more sustainable use of livestock.

Often when many people think about a solution to the global hunger problem, they think of crops such as maize, but how important is the role of livestock in areas such as East Africa where hunger is a big issue?

The good news is that fewer people are ‘calorie hungry’, which was a common hunger of the past. This reduction in the numbers of people ‘calorie hungry’ indicates that fewer people today than in the past are living in extreme poverty.

The hunger of the present is ‘hidden hunger’, a nutritional status resulting from lack of good-value proteins, vitamins and minerals. Cattle, sheep, goats and other farm animals raised for food have great potential to help solve this modern nutritional problem, especially in East Africa, where some one-third of children remain stunted and more than half the population suffer from hidden hunger, which can be alleviated by eating modest amounts of nutrient-rich foods. Vegetables and fruits are very nourishing foods, of course, but they are much less ‘nutrient dense’ than milk, meat and eggs and often contain anti-nutritional substances not found in livestock-derived foods.

In East Africa, where my institute, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is based and where most of the land is arid or semi-arid, it’s difficult to grow crops but surprisingly easy to raise a few chickens. Members of communities that keep cattle and hens are able not only to c onsume a little bit of animal protein, such as milk and eggs, regularly but also to obtain an income from their farm stock.

What is the impact of nutrient deficiency, or this hidden hunger, on people in these communities in their first one thousand days of life? Is there a long-term impact?

When I lived in Bangladesh and visited villages, I invariably would tower above everybody else—man and woman—in those villages. And I’m only 5 foot 5 inches tall! Children stunted from lack of the right foods do not grow as tall as they should. That impact is dramatic and visible. Less obvious are those suffering from micronutrient deficiencies. These people, particularly those malnourished in their first one thousand days of life, have less energy , can do less work and are less cognitively developed than others.

This means they do less well at school and they are more likely to drop out. Studies show that people who suffer from hidden hunger will earn less income than their well-fed peers. They’re also much more prone to infections. And of course managing disease in a poor household is one of the biggest ways that people fall into poverty in developing countries.

We’ve started to see hunger and malnutrition pick up. Why is this happening?

Hunger has been increasing, especially in East Africa, where some populations are quite vulnerable to hunger. But if you look at the developing world as a whole, it does seem clear that hunger is on a downward trend and that’s excellent news!

However, the latest data predicts there will be four billion people in Africa in 2100. Africa’s  agricultural systems will have to change dramatically to support the continent’s rapidly growing human population. In Asia, there is no similar rapid population increase, which means there is far less stress on agricultural systems. In Africa, population demography is still a challenge and that has got very much to do with a lack of women’s empowerment and women’s education.

Can we solve nutrition security issues if we don’t invest more in livestock and we don’t make livestock a more central part of nutritional plans?

We think it would be extremely difficult without nutrient-rich livestock-based diets. We should build on the strong desire of most mothers to give the most nutritious foods to their children. Nutritionists tell us it’s almost impossible in developing countries to give children in their crucial first thousand days all the nutrients they require without animal-source foods. The mothers of the world could solve malnutrition for us by feeding their children milk, eggs and small amounts of meat.

What is the goal the global community should be working towards to ensure nutrition security and to reduce hidden hunger?

To end hunger, including the hidden hunger of malnutrition, or to end the poverty that is the cause of hunger, is obviously a huge task. But if we make our best effort and reduce hunger  by 90 or 95 percent, that will be an amazing achievement. There is still hunger and malnourishment in America, in Ireland and in Europe, but it’s a much, much smaller proportion of the population that remans hungry in the developed countries. We’re trying to reduce hunger in places where 30 to 40 percent of children are stunted and 60 to 80 percent don’t get enough nutrients to lead productive and healthy lives. Getting hunger down to single digits—that’s achievable.

Dr Delia Grace trained as a veterinarian in northern England and working there in a private practice for five years. She went on to work at a vet in Bangladesh and East Africa at NGOs and has spent the past 11 years conducting research at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), where she co-leads ILRI’s Animal and Human Health program.