Despite all the highs and lows around the world, our number one challenge is how to feed humanity with nutritious food!

We are now coming to learn that the biggest epidemic facing mankind is obesity. Obesity, same as undernutrition needs world attention, from political, policy, programmatic and research perspectives. Clearly, undernutrition has not received a focus that is commensurate with the scale of the problem. We have dealt with it only when it reaches crisis level and then we address it as an emergency. This kind of approach has a number of flaws which include the fact that many lives are lost unnecessarily and we also end up with survivors who are unable to function optimally in life.

Research findings are showing a major link between childhood undernourishment and obesity later in life for those who survive. That partly explains why obesity can no longer be seen as just a problem of the affluent. WHO (World Health Organization) says obesity has more than doubled since 1980 and gives the following definitions:

“Overweight and obesity are defined as "abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health"

“Body mass index (BMI) – the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters (kg/m2) – is a commonly used index to classify overweight and obesity in adults. WHO defines overweight as a BMI equal to or more than 25, and obesity as a BMI equal to or more than 30”[1]

Anyone who goes to the doctor for a physical check-up will have their BMI or Body Mass Index reading given to them and sometimes might not know what that means. Therefore 25, and 30 are important upper limit readings.

The poor whose diets are monotonously energy dense, full of cheap fats and carbohydrates and lead an increasingly less active lifestyle are seriously vulnerable to obesity. The higher income consumers whose diets may be varied but high in fats and even proteins from meats, in sugar and overall energy, but are less physically active also risk becoming obese. Many of us know how easy it is to put on weight and yet so difficulty to take it off. Unfortunately, we still have far too many people who go to bed hungry and struggle to feed their families. There are then even more whose diets are far from being balanced. Many people just eat to survive. Yet, eating is and should be one of the most fulfilling activities we undertake on a daily basis. It takes time and energy to eat properly. We should be able to enjoy the food we eat, even as it fulfils our nutrient needs. Efforts are needed towards ensuring all of us are able to have a diverse diet that offers the minimum acceptable pleasure, while providing us with nutrients that our bodies can utilize in the most efficient way.

I believe that is what each cultural cuisine is all about and should be kept in mind by the private sector that now controls what we eat as we become more urbanized, and busier with work. If we can no longer enjoy our cultural foods, and even now lack the time to prepare them properly, how can the private sector address this need for us to enjoy food in all aspects? By private sector I mean anyone who processes food, and sell s us ready to eat food including hotels/restaurants and individual food vendors. Writing in 2007, Joachim Von Braun of IFPRI [2] wrote on “new driving forces” affecting the world food situation at the time. That was 7 years ago, and today, what he talked about is more true now than then, that high urbanization and increasing incomes are quickly changing consumer food habits. The concern though, as people eat more because they can afford more, is the food nutritious enough? The other side of it is as urbanization increases, is hunger also increasing and how does that then affect peace and stability?

I have learnt from my own experience that when we eat a high carbohydrate diet, we eat more of it in quantity, but if we balance our diet, our plate has less food but of much higher quality. It seems though that each time I receive news on my phone, or through the TV screen as fresh news, it is all negative, all about killings or natural disasters, or about accidents. Is the world losing itself? Is humanity in crisis? Look, we still cannot find the Malaysian Airlines plane which went missing on March 8, more than 2 months ago. Where are the 239 human souls that were on that flight? The best of technology in the 21st century cannot find this plane? What must their loved ones be feeling, thinking? Look at the resources that have gone into trying to find the plane? And still, there is no answer, not even a sign. I heard a Malaysian official ask the world to pray that they find the plane. He must have felt truly helpless to have made that request. My first visit to Malaysia was years ago at the invitation of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, keen to demonstrate to us how agriculture and specifically a focus on the palm oil industry was able to spur overall growth of the Malaysian economy. Right now Malaysia is one of the world’s largest exporters of palm oil. Agriculture spurred Malaysia’s economic take off. Some of us have been trying to make the same point to our policy makers in Africa for a long time.

Soon after was the Korean ferry where more 280 have died and some are still missing and may never be found. Most of the victims are students who were on a school trip. Their deputy head who had suggested the trip just could not live with himself after he was rescued, and was found hanging from a tree soon after. What a human tragedy, this event was!

It does not matter where one comes from; the reporting of this event really touched me especially regarding messages from young people, with so much to live for and who had to lose their lives needlessly. I watched the cries of the parents and loved ones; the world is so connected now that it is difficult for anyone to escape all this.

Then we get caught up in the saga of the missing girls in Nigeria, abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram which has been terrorising parts of Nigeria for a number of years now. As I write this, the girls are still unrescued and there are more bombings still. These children belong to families, poor families who have sent their daughters to a public school in hope of a better future; this act takes us many years back, to the time we started advocating for girl education. We have seen in the media, many of the parents express their fears and frustrations, and Nigerians go to the streets to demand better action and response by their government. Indeed the whole world has reacted with outrage. I am imagining myself as a mother, having my child in that kind of situation, and just wondering what I would do! I wonder what the girls are going through, what is being done to them, what their day-to-day life is like, and whether they are being sexually violated. I wonder what they are given to eat and whether they are aware of the international reaction to what has happened to them? Are they all still alive?

As if that is not serious enough, news comes of the explosion in Turkey, leaving more than 300 young, strong men dead, and most of them bread winners for their families. Some families lost 2 or 3 immediate family members. I saw the human side as this one village that depends on the mine for livelihood wondered how they were going to survive; they looked bewildered. Something else that touched me was one man being interviewed who said: “we in the West are not used to this kind of sorrow” (paraphrased). You can imagine what I made of it, that we in developing countries have so many sources of sorrow, that some in the developed world are aware of it and feel lucky not to be in the same situation. But you know what? One can never really get used to sorrow. Sorrow is invoked in me even when I watch a sad movie. We feel sorrow for people we do not even know; is that not what makes us human? Is that not what makes us act? What do we feel on seeing the cry of a father whose child is shot in school or college in the USA, or on watching terrorist attacks in Kenya, in Iraq, in Nigeria, in Afghanstan, or watching the effects of the war in Syria, in Ukraine, or watching the devastation of natural disasters, like the floods in the Balkans, landslides in Washington USA, and now the 3 million facing starvation in South Sudan when only 3 years ago we were celebrating the birth of a new nation after years of fighting and displacement and deaths ? So how does this affect us? We should actually worry about all these events.

We might be taking too much for granted that there is enough to feed everyone and that all we have to do is move food around. With increasing intolerance and hopelessness in our youth, heightened violence, accidents whether natural or manmade, resources –human, financial and technical- are being diverted to addressing the real bad situations while little attention is paid to causes, mediation or prevention.

There are already signs that rising inequity is a huge threat to world peace, to sustainable development. How come when there is a really bad situation, all of a sudden resources can be mobilized to address it; yet we cannot invest enough in closing social inequities. I am not talking of socialism here nor am I talking of hand-outs. More resources are needed for food and agricultural research, to generate foods that not only fill our stomachs, but are also socially and nutritionally fulfilling. Food and agricultural scientists too need to pay attention to this and should try to guide donors accordingly. We also all need to find innovative ways to keep our youth interested in life. Something has changed for sure. More and more we have young people who keep wondering why they are in this world. Many are educated yet have no jobs. Many resort to drugs and crime.

Climate variability is here with us and many smallholder farmers on whom most developing countries depend for their food and nutrition security are acutely vulnerable. FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) says changing weather is likely to affect food and energy markets and availability, inflating food prices, for example droughts in Australia, a major grains producer could affect commodity prices, and locusts in Madagascar [3].

All these sad and terrible events I have referred to are realities that divert our attention from probably a far worse situation in the future- inability to feed the world. Hunger breeds anger and clearly we seem to be oblivious to what this truly means. The time to act and think differently is really now.

Governments especially need to begin to reflect on how to feed their people, not just with any food, but high quality nutritious food, while the private sector needs to put nutrition at the top of their priority agenda as they produce food for the mass market. Governments need to find ways to contain insecurity as they innovate to find jobs for their youth and close the inequity gaps.

We need to work together on all these issues.

1. https://dumbbellsreview.com/obesity/ Accessed on May 25, 2014.

2. Von Braun J The world food situation: New driving forces and required actions (2007),
http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/pr18.pdf Accessed on May 25, 2014.

3. FAO. FAO Media Centre, Rome, Italy.

Ruth Oniang’o
Editor-in-Chief, AJFAND