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IFPRI's Conference to Focus on Child Malnutrition - 2001-09-01

A new food policy study predicts slowing progress against child malnutrition over the next 20 years unless governments take more aggressive action. The International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, IFPRI, says advances to reduce the number of underfed youth are unconscionably slow.

The IFPRI Director General Per Pinstrup-Anderson of Denmark sounds frustrated. In a world of plenty, millions are hungry, but who is paying attention? He wonders why children dying slowly from malnourishment are less noteworthy than if jumbo jets full of them plunged in a series of fiery crashes. "Imagine a plane falling down every half-hour throughout the day, the week, and the year," he says. "How long do you think it would take before governments around the world would take action? Not very long. Yet, that is exactly the number of children that currently die from malnutrition, and governments don't take action."

Mr. Pinstrup-Anderson seeks to rouse governments and others into action. One tool to do this is a new IFPRI projection that shows continuing world hunger in 20 years, even as incomes rise in many regions. The finding is based on a computer model of expected production and consumption of 16 grains and meats over the next two decades. It predicts that, despite a 20 percent decline in the number of malnourished children by 2020, 132 million will still be underfed. "This bleak scenario does not have to materialize," says Mr. Pinstrup-Anderson. "If sustainable food security is given high priority by governments everywhere, children who would otherwise die tomorrow and next year and the year after will grow up to be productive citizens."

IFPRI says the cost of cutting child malnutrition in half by 2020 would be an extra $10 billion a year. $25 billion are now invested in developing countries annually to boost farm productivity, secure clean water sources, develop rural infrastructure, and improve education and health.

To the author of the IFPRI report, Mark Rosegrant, $10 billion is a scant amount. "It's about equivalent to one week of global military expenditures," he says.

Not all regions face equally bleak food futures. IFPRI predicts Latin America will eliminate child malnutrition by 2020 and China will cut it in half. But the food policy organization says India will continue to have one-third of the world's underfed children and sub-Saharan Africa will see an 18 percent increase unless action is taken.

But Mr. Rosegrant says declining spending on agricultural research, water resources, and rural infrastructure has hurt the feeding effort by slowing the growth of farm productivity. At the same time, however, food demand is rising because of population growth and higher incomes. As a result, IFPRI predicts rapidly rising grain and meat imports in developing nations, which Mr. Rosegrant says will squeeze some national treasuries.

"For many of the countries, such as China, parts of Latin America, and parts of Southeast Asia, this increase in imports is really a sign of success," explains Mr. Rosegrant. "But in other regions, such as most of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East and North Africa, these rapid imports could be a significant financial burden."

IFPRI calls for removing trade barriers and subsidies that promote domestic production over imports. It argues such measures would save exporters and importers money and enhance investment in developing country food production.

The group is taking its case to a global food conference it has organized in Bonn, Germany beginning Sept. 4. It expects more than 1,000 world leaders, policy makers, researchers, and advocates to discuss the world's food problem. An outcome beyond consciousness-raising is unclear. But Mr. Pinstrup-Anderson hopes something can be accomplished. He says "I'm hoping that the conference will be a wake up call to those people who can do something about the tremendous human misery that so many people are incurring."