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College of Human Ecology

Provost points to continuing efforts to prevent food insecurity

Monday, February 24, 2014

Food insecurity – hunger and the lack of safe, healthful food - exists worldwide, including in the United States, in Kansas and in Manhattan.

Today, one in eight people worldwide are hungry, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). At the same time, the World Health Organization reports that worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 1980.

"Food security is the availability of food to a person in a safe and socially acceptable way," said April Mason, Kansas State University's provost and senior vice president and professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, College of Human Ecology.

Food insecurity, therefore, is the lack of food and essential nutrients. Those who are hungry and obese alike could be experiencing some form of food insecurity, Mason said. With the world population expected to surpass 9 billion by the year 2050, the problem with worldwide food security is only going to get bigger unless people come together to work on solutions.

Mason said it will take research, the use of modern technologies, a knowledgeable workforce, and food and agricultural industry collaboration to prepare for the future and advance the global food system, from before the farm to beyond the consumer's fork.

Doing our part

"There are people living close and far away who receive food in ways that are unfamiliar to most to us," she said. "They may have to beg for food. They may go through dumpsters to find food. That's a socially unacceptable way to get food. It's certainly not safe."

Around the world, Mason said, farmers and ranchers produce enough food to feed the world population, but the problem lies in distributing it, particularly to the areas experiencing the most hunger, without spoilage.

"It's not just quantity of food, it's quality of food," Mason said. "As a nutrition professional, I recognize the quantity of food is indeed important. You need enough calories, but you also need foods that have key nutrients in them—iron and zinc, for example, in young, growing children, and iron for reproductively aged women. You need key nutrients such that quality of the food is appropriate to nourish our bodies for optimal health."

Preventing post-harvest waste and learning to better preserve foods are key components to combating hunger, she said. Every person can do his or her part to help in many different ways, and preventing food waste is one important way.

According to the FAO, nearly one-third of the food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted each year. Annual food losses and waste amounts equal about $680 billion in the United States and $310 billion in developing countries.

"I'm a proponent of just buying the food you're going to consume," Mason said. "Don't buy a lot of fresh food that is going to spoil before you can actually utilize it. It's pretty amazing how much food goes to waste in our own country."

Many schools and universities are doing their part to prevent food waste by going to tray-less cafeterias and have found that without trays, people will only take the food they can carry and actually really want, Mason said.

People also can choose professions in the food and agricultural industries and volunteer in food drives and at their local food banks to help, she said. Growing your own garden, eating locally produced foods and sharing extra fresh foods with local food banks should also be considered, when the season allows it.

"I'm a big proponent of local foods, if possible," Mason said. "There are times that it's important to eat foods that are grown locally. They are fresher and many times taste better. But, there are going to be times, like right now, where it's cold, we're not going to be able to produce certain foods, and we're going to have to get them from other parts of the country or world."

Although some parts of the developing world have difficulty accessing foods from other areas, Mason said the United States is fortunate to be able to transport foods to and from great distances while maintaining their quality, safeness and freshness for consumption.

Using modern technologies

In addition to advancing food preservation and transportation methods, other areas of research including plant science, animal science and biotechnology, are allowing for more food to be produced at lower costs. Developing efficient livestock, drought-resistant strains of certain crops, and crops that don't need as many inputs, such as pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, is important, Mason said.

Using biotechnology to genetically modify plants for better food production is one of the ways to grow food that requires fewer inputs and sometimes makes foods more nutritious, she said.

"Golden rice, for example, has higher levels of vitamin A, so people who consume it get that very important nutrient to help prevent vitamin A deficiency blindness," Mason said. "I worked in Indonesia many years ago and saw firsthand vitamin A deficiency blindness, iodine deficiency goiters, truly just malnutrition in general."

Personally, Mason said she doesn't have a problem consuming genetically modified food products, but there does seem to be a resistance to foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), both in the United States and Europe.

The public concern is evident as popular cereal brands have recently announced using GMO-free grains, and many advocates have pushed for GMO-free labeling.

One of the things Mason said she has done is compare the public resistance to genetically modified crop production to the resistance to pasteurizing milk many years ago.

"People thought something as sacred as milk, that we're doing something to it to modify it, change it and it won't be as good for us," she said. "Now we know that we're destroying potentially sickness-producing organisms, and we're increasing the freshness and longevity of milk products. Many people don't think about pasteurization now. I see a future where people will see (genetically modified foods) as one more way we can increase production, and quality of foods."

Finding solutions

Increasing our food production and making it more efficient in anticipation of a much larger world population means that many different people need to come together to address the issues, Mason said. Kansas State University is unique in that it has many of its own food and agricultural programs, in addition to industry partners, to collaborate on research and train the future workforce to advance the global food system.

"What's nice about having all of these in a close geographic area is that scientists can talk across those lines, whether it be state government, federal government or our local university's many departments, faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students who are positioned to make contributions to the global food system," Mason said. "It's nice to have colleagues close where discussions and collaborative research can go on."

Prepared by K-State Research and Extension

This article was posted on Monday, February 24, 2014, and is filed under College News, Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health.