By Youri Kemp
Caribbean News Now associate editor
SANTIAGO, Chile — The Panorama of Food and Nutrition Security 2018, published last week, highlights the alarming rates of obesity and hunger across the wide spectrum of Caribbean and Latin American countries.
The report, prepared jointly by the regional division of four UN agencies: FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the World Food Programme (WFP), highlights that, in Latin America, 8.4 percent of women live in severe food insecurity, compared to 6.9 percent of men, while indigenous populations generally suffer greater food insecurity than non-indigenous people. In ten countries, children from the poorest 20 percent of households suffer three times more stunting than the richest 20 percent.
Julio Berdegué, FAO’s regional representative, said on Wednesday that, for the third consecutive year, there is “bad news” for Latin America and the Caribbean, where the numbers of hungry people have increased to “39.3 million people”, which works out to roughly some 6.1 percent of the total population.
At the unveiling of the report last week in Santiago, Chile, at the regional headquarters for the UN in Latin America, Berdegué said: “There is no material or scientific reason to justify hunger… We are issuing a wake-up call to governments and societies.”
Since 2014, the number of undernourished people has grown in Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela. The largest rise occurred in Venezuela, with an increase of 600,000 people from 2014 to 2017, according to the Panorama.
Other countries severely affected by hunger are Haiti – five million people, equivalent to 45.7 percent of the population – and Mexico – 4.8 million people, representing 3.8 percent of the population.
However, in both Haiti and Mexico, hunger has declined in the last three years. The same is true in Colombia and the Dominican Republic. But these are the only four countries in the region that managed to reduce hunger since 2014.
Eleven countries maintain their number of undernourished people relatively unchanged: Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Peru. On the other hand, Brazil, Cuba and Uruguay are the three countries in the region with percentages of hunger below 2.5 percent of their population.
Economic and social inequality is correlated and associated with child stunting.
According to the Panorama, social and economic inequalities are also apparent in child stunting. In Honduras, stunting affects 42 percent of children in lower income families and only 8 percent of those living in higher income contexts. In Guatemala, the difference is greater: stunting affects the poorest 66 percent and only 17 percent of the children of higher-income families.
Stunting is also greater in the indigenous population. In Ecuador, 42 percent of indigenous children lived with chronic malnutrition compared to 25 percent of the national average (2012). In Guatemala, stunting affected 61 percent of indigenous children in 2014-2015 and only 34 percent of non-indigenous children.
Children in rural areas also have worse indicators than those living in urban areas. In Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Suriname the rates of stunting in rural areas exceed the rates observed in urban areas by more than 50 percent.
“Stunting is closely correlated with inequality and poverty, but overweight is also increasingly affecting the poorest children. They face conditions of high social and economic vulnerability and suffer from inequitable access to health services and healthy diets,” said María Cristina Perceval, regional director for UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Panorama indicates that one of the main causes of the rise of malnutrition in vulnerable population groups are the changes that the region’s food systems – the cycle of food from production to consumption – have undergone.
These changes have affected the entire population, but the most excluded members of society have suffered the worst effects; while many have increased their consumption of healthy foods such as milk and meat, often they must opt for cheap products with high fat, sugar and salt content.
To respond to growing malnutrition, the FAO, PAHO, UNICEF, WFP called on countries to implement public policies that combat inequality and promote healthy and sustainable food systems.
Carissa Etienne, director of PAHO, said that “although malnutrition persists in the region, particularly in vulnerable populations, obesity and overweight also particularly affect these groups.”
“A multisectoral approach is needed, ranging from ensuring access to balanced and healthy food to addressing other social factors that also impact on these forms of malnutrition, such as access to education, water and sanitation, and health services,” she said in a connection from the organisation’s Washington headquarters.
In her view, “we must make progress in access to universal health so that all people can receive the care and prevention measures they need with regard to malnutrition and its long-term consequences.”
Each year obesity grows by 3.6 million people
Obesity has become the greatest nutritional threat in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nearly one in four adults is obese. Overweight affects 7.3 percent (3.9 million) of children under five years of age, a figure that exceeds the world average of 5.6 percent, the Panorama report indicates.