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Economist Articles Examine Agriculture, Nutrition Issues

In an article examining the relationship between health and agriculture, the Economist writes that while agricultural growth is “no magic solution” to helping people gain access to nutritious foods, “[f]arming ought to be especially good for nutrition.” The magazine notes, “In theory a rise in farm output should boost nutrition by more than a comparable rise in general economic well-being, measured by GDP. In practice it is another story,” as various countries’ records show. “Malawi, Bangladesh and Vietnam all increased agricultural value-added by roughly $100 a head from 1990 to 2007, and cut malnutrition by 15-20 percentage points. Egypt, Guatemala and India pushed up agricultural value-added more – yet their malnutrition rates rose.” 

“Agricultural growth is one of the best ways to generate income for the poorest, who need the most help buying nutritious food. And in many countries women do most of the farm work. They also have most influence on children’s health. Profitable farming, women’s income and child nutrition should therefore go together,” according to the Economist. “But there are limits. Malnutrition does the most damage in the first 1,000 days of life. In those months maternal health, breastfeeding and infant care, not agriculture, matter most. Better farming can mean more calories and higher incomes. But with nutrition, it offers only a few steel bullets, not a silver one.”

The article describes findings presented at a recent International Food Policy Research Institute conference in New Delhi, India (3/24).

Spending Habits Gauge Hunger, Economists Say


A second article in the Economist highlights a recent paper by economists Robert Jensen of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Nolan Miller of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which proposes a “new way to use people’s eating choices to tell whether they are hungry.”

“The economists argue that the pain caused by hunger will prompt insufficiently nourished people to spend a larger share of their food budget on staples like rice and millet, which are cheap sources of calories. But once people are no longer hungry, they do not need to spend their incremental cash on the cheapest source of calories but can base their choices on things like variety and taste. This means that the share of calories that comes from staples falls progressively once a person is no longer famished; and that an unusually high share of calories coming from staples indicates that a person is hungry,” the magazine writes.

Jensen and Miller propose “looking at the prices of various foods,” which would make it “possible to work out what share of a person’s calories would come from staples such as rice and wheat if he were trying to fulfil his dietary needs as cheaply as possible,” the Economist writes. “This theoretical ‘staple calorie share’ (SCS) can then be compared with the make-up of a person’s actual diet. Someone who is consuming a significantly higher share of calories from staple foods than predicted is likely to be hungry” (3/24).

In related news, the National Journal features a piece highlighting recent developments on food price spikes (Edwards, 3/24).

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.