Ending World Hunger for the Price of a Burger

10/18/2010 05:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While world coffers grew from a mere $1.35 trillion dollars in 1960 to over $60 trillion today, the number of empty stomach reached record levels. Today nearly one billion people around the world do not have enough food to eat and another billion are not getting the right food.

It is imperative that society−government, civil society, and the private sector−work together to break this cycle of poverty and hunger as the situation is only likely to get worse. The food price crisis of 2007-2008 sent an additional 20 million people into extreme poverty and 40 million people into hunger and deprivation, providing the world with a foretaste of what's to come.

A mere two years later world food prices are experiencing another upward spike. The Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) global food price index in 2008 reached a record high of 191. Just last month, the index jumped almost 20% over a 12 month period to 188, frighteningly close to the 2008 level.

The latest agricultural outlook paints a bleak picture. Wheat and coarse grain prices, the world's staple foods, are predicted to increase 15-40% between 2010 and 2019−making it almost certain that food prices will reach new records sometime this decade.

With a global population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050 and growing resource scarcity, it is clear that agricultural reform, innovation and new distribution models need to be developed to cope with these challenging conditions. However, we must look beyond simply the quantity of food we produce if we are to truly end hunger.

Last week the International Food Policy Research Institute issued their global hunger index. Their report concluded that malnutrition (a critical lack of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals) among children under two years old is one of the biggest contributors to world hunger. It is also the focus of the 1,000 Days Campaign announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Summit.

The link between nutrition, poverty and hunger

Research by the World Food Programme has shown that malnutrition can lower a country's GDP by at least two to three percent. This has significant implications in both the long and short term. Current estimates suggest that a one percent decline in developing country growth rates traps an additional 20 million people in poverty.

When we consider these facts together with significant food price increases predicted over the coming years, we begin to realize the gravity of the situation. According to the World Health Organisation, households reduce their food expenditures by 0.75% for every 1% increase in food prices, reducing the quality and quantity of meals. Thus, by the end of the decade, households could reduce their spending on food by as much as 30%.

If we are to break the poverty cycle, we need to find a cost-effective way to provide adequate amounts of nutritious food to the world's poor. Ideally, we would all have access and the ability to buy the variety of foods we need to maintain a healthy diet. The reality, however, is that the majority of the world's population tends to buy calorie-rich foods to fill their stomachs, but these foods often have little nutritional value.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the story is that we have the solutions. All over the world, successful nutrition pilot programs have been launched, improving the lives of millions. For example, a study in Guatemala showed that a fortified complementary food program provided to boys up to the age of three resulted in adulthood earning wages that were 46% higher than the control group.

Fortification of staple foods is perhaps the cheapest way to start realizing results. The cost per person per year ranges from ten cents to one dollar. Therefore, we could already start providing better nutrition to the entire world for $2 billion a year, which is less than a tenth of a percent of the estimated $2.895 trillion the world's poor spend on food a year.

While fortification provides a number of essential vitamins and minerals, it cannot provide the full range of nutrients infants and young children require. To address this issue, various home fortification options have been developed such as micronutrient powders that can be added directly to food. According to the World Bank, the global cost to provide complete nutrition to children under two is $10 billion a year.

This might sound like a lot of money. However, when you put it into perspective, it's not. On average, Americans alone spend over $30 billion on hamburgers. Therefore, if the world could commit just one third of the same resources to fight childhood malnutrition, we could, for the first time, make a major breakthrough in breaking the poverty cycle and ending hunger.

The knowledge is there. The resources are there. But can the world stomach the responsibility?