Getting a better handle on hunger

Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez, the new director of McGill’s unique Institute for Global Food Security, says we don’t do a good job of gauging how much food the world’s hungry really need.

by Jake Brennan, BA’97

Food insecurity, an issue as old as humanity itself, afflicts more than a third of the globe’s citizens. It isn’t just a developing-country phenomenon. Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez, the new director of the McGill Institute for Global Food Security — the only one of its kind on the planet — says food insecurity affects people everywhere and in every country.

The perennial issue returned to front pages in 2008, when a protracted spike in commodity prices precipitated a global food crisis. That same year, McGill hosted its First Conference on Global Food Security. Although the high-profile conference, which brings together international experts, held its sixth edition in October, the University’s many researchers in the field wanted to do more because, as Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Chandra Madramootoo, BSc(AgrEng)’77, MSc’81, PhD’85, puts it, “The food crisis is simply not going away.” He adds, “While there may have been some national gains, we still see no improvement in parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa, and in some countries, food and nutrition insecurity has worsened.”

The issue, so fundamental that it practically defines “multi-disciplinary problem,” means the Institute for Global Food Security, born in the 2010-11 academic year, collaborates with other McGill departments as varied as Agricultural Economics, Bioresource Engineering, Dietetics and Human Nutrition, Parasitology, the Institute for the Study of International Development, and the Faculty of Law, to name only a few.

But unlike other universities, which require credits from these various component disciplines to earn a degree in Global Food Security (GFS), McGill has actually designed new courses combining them. It also gives students opportunities to do field semesters and research projects abroad in developing country or NGO settings. Starting in January 2014, the institute will offer a BSc major in GFS. An applied master’s program will follow in the fall.

Heading up the first institute devoted specifically to GFS requires someone with an exceptionally varied background, says Madramootoo ― someone with “a good understanding of the linkages between food insecurity, nutrition, health, socio-economic circumstances and human development.”

Melgar-Quiñonez’s piercing ice-blue eyes belie his warm, outgoing nature. When Melgar-Quiñonez was a teen, his father, a law professor interested in social justice issues, suggested he work at a community clinic in his native Guatemala with a physician friend. The doctor-mentor served extremely poor patients. Still, he would write out and hand them a debit note after treating them. “Why do you write the note? They won’t be able to pay you anyway,” asked Melgar-Quiñonez. “This gives them their dignity,” replied the doctor. The doctor’s determination to improve the lives of the poor made a lasting impression.

Melgar-Quiñonez began medical school at 17, but political upheaval in Guatemala forced him to flee to Mexico to start over again. At 20, the continuing tumult in Guatemala cut off his study-abroad funding. Melgar-Quiñonez won a scholarship and started his medical studies — from zero, for a third time — at Friedrich Schiller Universität in Jena, Germany. His perseverance paid off: he finally earned his degree in 1992, 15 years after starting medical studies. Still, something gnawed at him.

Comparing field-study files that his pathology professor, Manfred Danz, had collected in Mozambique with those of patients in Jena, Melgar-Quiñonez found the mirror image: in Mozambique, the majority died around five years old; in Jena, most were dying after 70.

I thought ‘Here are two different worlds on the same planet — the same species with the same physiological needs, but the basic causes and determinants of illness are so different.’” Given this, why was the medical school curriculum in Guatemala the same as in Mexico and Germany – much richer countries? “I thought, ‘It doesn’t make sense.’”

“Physicians are not very well versed in agriculture, nutrition and preventive medicine,” continues Melgar-Quiñonez. After a decade and a half of post-secondary education, he felt he still wasn’t qualified to tackle what fascinated him, the root causes of illness. So, he enrolled in a doctoral program in medicine with Danz, finishing in 1996.

Around this time, the early nineties, UNICEF for the first time recognized hunger as the cause of more than half of global child deaths. The measles claiming many Mozambican children weren’t acute; their malnourishment simply meant they couldn’t fight it. Listing hunger as the primary, not the secondary, cause of death gave the field of nutrition a big push.

Still, nutrition was only being considered in crude, quantitative terms. The basis for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) annual report on the Status of Food Insecurity in the World is its food balance sheets. These reflect the total calories available in a country (which assumes uniform food distribution), divided by its population. The only regular GFS monitor, it set off alarm bells when, in 2009, the number of individuals not meeting their basic food needs topped one billion. The 2012 figure is down to 870 million, but the definition is deeply flawed, suggests Melgar-Quiñonez.

Researchers have based caloric needs on their own sedentary lifestyle — sitting at a computer, driving home, more computer time, bed. In poorer countries, where more people work harder on smaller farms using less machinery, caloric needs are higher. Assuming a moderate level of daily activity, the global number of food insecure people jumps to 1.5 billion. And vigorous activity? 2.5 billion — more than 36 per cent of the world’s seven billion inhabitants.

“And we are not even talking about food quality — deficiencies in iron, which affect 1.7 billion people, or calcium or vitamin A,” explains Melgar-Quiñonez. Deficiencies in zinc, one of the most important minerals for the immune system, affect one third of the world’s population. Intestinal parasites not only compete with their host for food, but can impede calorie absorption. Such conditions can lead to stunting, a failure to thrive and, therefore, a reduced ability to farm or work to earn money for food.

Cash-strapped citizens are “bombarded by new products, and don’t understand that the nice packaging doesn’t necessarily mean it’s food they should be consuming,” he says. The overabundance of cheap, oily starches leads to what he calls food insecurity’s “double burden”: both undernourished and obese people, even within the same household. “Many people’s bellies are full, but with empty calories,” he says.

Poorer countries will not have the resources to handle the deferred epidemic these empty calories create: obesity-related problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, already prevalent in Western countries. “This is a huge failing,” he says. “The magnitude of the problem is much bigger than we think.”

True to the Institute’s multidisciplinary nature, Melgar-Quiñonez acts as a lecturer, student co-advisor and research collaborator with the Departments of Family Medicine, Geography and Anthropology, the Faculty of Law and the Institute for the Study of International Development. He was a key early-stage advisor to the McGill team of MBA students who took home the $1-million Hult Prize this fall for their business plan to improve the availability of nutritious food to slum dwellers around the world by providing them with protein-rich “power flour” infused with pulverized crickets, a common food source in Mexico.

But all this advising is a far cry from where he, and the GFS field, was 15 years ago. Melgar-Quiñonez’s exploration of food security’s complexity mirrors the evolution of the field itself. Questions he asked Latino populations in California in 1998 led him and scholars working in parallel to present, in 2007, the Latin American and Caribbean Food Security Scale (ELCSA). Expanding on this, this spring, with Melgar-Quiñonez’s help, the FAO launched the Voices of the Hungry project. The experience-based survey asks respondents eight yes or no questions about the variety and healthiness of their food, and everything from worrying about having enough food to going a whole day without. Researchers can quantify the simple survey’s results quickly, making it broadly applicable — so broad, in fact, that in March, 2014, the questionnaire will become part of the annual World Gallup Poll, a survey administered in over 150 countries with great cultural sensitivity, to ensure accuracy.

Melgar-Quiñonez’s involvement in developing the questionnaire puts students and the new Institute “in the front row” of GFS’s maturation, he says, while his extensive field experience will help them with the art that complements the field’s science. Beyond their varied course work, students need to develop the abstract thinking and, crucially, the personal skills to connect all these disciplines on the ground. “You cannot say to political leaders or farmers ‘This is what my textbook says.’” Being adaptable to local needs is what will end up making a real-world difference.

What else is needed to make a difference to what Melgar-Quiñonez calls “the most important challenge humanity is facing right now”? Investment, including in research, where McGill’s measures are clearly a step in the right direction.

Still, says Melgar-Quiñonez, “We are spending in other important areas, but if we are unable to meet the most basic human right ― access to nutritious food ― what are we doing for the foundation of human civilization?”

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