Hungry Planet

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Link suite overview on malnutrition, blighted futures, dumb food aid, sachets of hopes, micronutrient magic, microbiology and new markets

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

There are now, by recent tally, 7 billion people on planet Earth and at least 2 billion of us are hungry. Malnutrition, either from lack of food or too much of the wrong food is a human tragedy on every level imaginable. By the time they are just two years old, malnourished children are permanently stunted, both in body and mind. Illness defines their lives (diarrhea to diabetes). The spark of potential dims.

Translated into the cold hard statistics of economic health, a humanitarian crisis starves the state of GDP. Productivity losses due to chronic famine in western China are estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. In the US, a “Hunger Bill Map” calculates, state by state, the cost of avoidable illnesses, poor educational outcomes and the value of emergency charitable donations.

As goes the “bottom of the pyramid,” so goes the pyramid: human potential, both at an individual level and as a species, squandered.

In world increasingly bound together by global trade and digital communications, lowering tides may not sink, but most certainly threaten, all boats. Whether from compassion or self-interest, malnutrition, a crisis whose vast dimensions have been obscured by images of the most extreme cases—the extended-bellies, toothpick-thin limbs and glassy-eyes of children more dead than alive—must be comprehensively tackled. The alternative is simply too grim to consider.

According to the UN’s 2011 Human Development Report, continued degradation of the environment just about guarantees that all development gains made in the world’s poorest countries will be erased, if not reversed, by mid-century. The issues of pollution, deforestation, soil erosion and climate change are deeply entwined with malnutrition.

Even if all the eco-angles were addressed, it will take more than a better distribution of calories to fix the problem. International aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF / Doctors Without Borders) has been at the forefront of a campaign—Starved for Attention—against grain-based food aid, primarily from the US, that fails to meet the nutritional needs of children. Although a boon to American farmers, shipping tons of corn and soy halfway around the world is a staggeringly inefficient and expensive way to help.

MSF promotes all-in-one “Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods” (RUTF) such as Plumpy’Nut, an enriched peanut butter paste that comes packaged in small packets called sachets, which are small enough for even the littlest hands to grasp. Rip open a sachet and a child squeezes out the sweet paste. Supplies can be given to mothers, shortening stays at emergency feeding centers. Another advantage: no water required.

A similar product call Wawa Mum using chickpeas as the base was used in Pakistan as part of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) post-flood emergency response. By incorporating a locally grown crop, the fortified food can also help revive a local economy.

Food giant PepsiCo, partnering with USAID and WFP, has announced a similar effort in Ethiopia that will enlist 20,000 small farmers and develop a nutritional food for young children.

Corporate partnerships have become an increasingly important trend. France-based Danone has collaborated with Bangladeshi microfinance pioneer Grameen to develop an inexpensive fortified yogurt that can last up to week without refrigeration. A cartoon-ish and child-friendly spokes-lion (someone dressed up in a lion suit) is used to help market “Shakti Doi,” which comes in both mango and vanilla flavors. Everything about the production and distribution of the yogurt is designed to generate jobs and strengthen community. Local dairies supply the milk. Thousands of women sell the product door to door.

The network that develops through the Shakti Doi yogurt routes also provides a way to distribute information about health and hygiene. Malnutrition weakens immune systems and people who are sick are more likely to be malnourished.

This hyper-local distribution model offers other advantages as well. In an op-ed piece for Indian broadcaster IBN, Save the Children’s Ananthapriya Subramanian tells the story of a mother who cannot risk leaving her home in an illegal Mumbai slum for fear it will be burgled. The door is a flimsy sack. Help has to come to her or help won’t happen.

THINKING SMALL

Calories and micronutrients can’t help a child with diarrhea. The food doesn’t stick around long enough for its nutrition to be absorbed. An estimated 1.6 million children die annually from diarrhea—a leading cause of death of young children worldwide. Something as simple as a bar of soap can make a difference.

Probiotics (beneficial gut microbes) and prebiotics (substances that help good gut microbes thrive) have been shown to cut the length of a bout of diarrhea in otherwise healthy children. A robust gut biome is also able to absorb more nutrition from food. More research is needed to determine whether pro- and prebiotics could make a difference among those moderately malnourished.

Another small and potentially powerful answer could come in the form of a genetically modified fungus called VitaYeast. Developed by a group of Johns Hopkins undergrads for the iGEM competition (international genetically modified machines), the yeast is wired to produce vitamin A. As the yeast multiplies during bread-making, vitamin A is infused into the dough. Baking kills off the yeast. Still in experimental stages, the approach shows promise. It should be cheaper to add vitamin-enhanced yeast into dough than to fortify grain or grow GMO wheat.

PATH, an international health organization, has taken a slightly different approach, developing “Ultra Rice,” a fortified rice dough. “Grains,” that look just like regular rice are added to regular rice at a ratio of 1:100. PATH recently partnered with drug-maker Abbott to refine the manufacture and distribution of the product in India.

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Hungry Planet is one of the larger TrackerNews link suites, with more than 40 stories. All links on the aggregator become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Among the highlights:

  • Hunger Notes / World Hunger Education Service (aggregator)

Germs, Soap & Water: Link Suite Overview

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At TrackerNews, we tend to shy away from issues that have “days” as almost a sure mark that the cause, however noble, is all but lost. Awareness is whipped to fever pitch, followed almost inevitably by a “what do we do now?” hang-over, and an ADD sprint onto the next issue du jour. But World Toilet Day (Nov. 19) caught—and kept—our attention. So much so, we used it as the fulcrum of one the largest link suites ever on the aggregator.  —Ed.

“Germs, Soap & Water” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

It is as basic—and necessary—as breathing. And, just like breathing, one of the first things we need to be able to do on our own: We poop. But what begins as a triumph of living, quickly devolves into daily problem with deadly implications. Human poop is a happy home for at least 50 pathogens, including cholera, the latest of Haiti’s cascading list of immeasurable woes.

At some point each day, each one of the now more than 6 billion people on that planet will need to “take a moment,” “go to the powder room,” or “be right back.”  For one in six, however, there is no “powder room,” or even a bucket into which to “do one’s business.”  A full third don’t have access to a clean bathroom. Instead, they do as nature designed, find a place to squat and simply “go”—or, in the jargon of the sanitation experts, perform “open defecation” (OD).

It is messy, smelly, wildly dangerous in terms of public health, and dicey in terms of personal safety. Women and children are especially vulnerable to attack and rape. No safety, privacy or dignity.

Journalist Rose George, author of “The Big Necessity” and an expert on the issue, notes that only a small fraction of development funds spent on water projects goes toward sanitation. Yet to seriously move the dial on global public health, safe toilets and hand-washing with soap are required as well. According to one, oft-quoted stat, one child dies every 15 seconds from largely preventable diarrheal diseases. Hand-washing with soap alone can reduce the tally by more than half.

Which is why Clean the World (CTW), a two-year-old charity that steam-cleans partially-used hotel soaps for distribution in poor countries, is one of the best, cheapest, smartest public health efforts to come along in some time. At 50 cents a bar, soap in Haiti is a luxury. Free soap is a literal life-saver. Think of it as a kind of bed-net against germs.

Likewise, Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) delivers dramatic results for almost no cost, using a combination of shock, peer-pressure and incentives to stamp out OD. Villagers are graphically shown how excreta and germs get into water and food via dirty hands, shoes, feet. Not only are latrines quickly built, but a combination of fines and rewards ensure they’re used.

INNOVATION, HISTORY, CULTURE & ART

At TrackerNews, we never met a stray fact we didn’t like and bathrooms, it turns out, are full of them. Consider the latest breakthrough in TP tech: the tubeless toilet paper roll. The center is hexagonal—a biomimicked bee hive cell—which is a particularly strong shape that easily fits over a roller. Not only is every sheet usable, but if the design were to be widely adopted, one that could keep an estimated 17 billion-with-a-“b” cardboard tubes out of landfills annually, just in the U.S.

Although the basic design of the flush toilet hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years, the variety and sheer spectacularness of loo-design has been nothing short of breathtaking. From Golden Plunger award-winners to “Toilets of the World” (book & website), the variations on the theme are inspirational.

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Additional links include:
  • maps on Haiti’s cholera outbreak
  • night soil: free, cheap, endless supply of fertilizer
  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.