UNDERNOURISHED children, overnourished adults — that is “the double burden of malnutrition” that afflicts the Philippines.

A paradox, indeed, in a highly agricultural economy, which should be producing food in abundance. To this day, however, many Filipinos do not have access to proper nutrition and adequate food supply, government data show.

In fact, according to Dr. Cecilia S.Acuin of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), the Philippines confronts a “double burden of malnutrition” – under-nutrition among children and overnutrition among adults.

She cited sad figures.

* Among Filipinos aged 0 to 5, one of every five (20 percent) is underweight; one of every three (30 percent) is under-height or does not meet the ideal height for their age; and 8 percent are “wasted” or underweight for their height.

* Among Filipinos aged 20 and above, one of every three (31 PERCENT) is overweight or obese; one of every five (22 percent) “have high waist circumference”; and three of every five (62 percent) have high waist-hip ratio.

The over-nutrition of Filipino adults, she said, has resulted from a bad combination of “increasing physical inactivity” and “poor diet” — the low intake of fruits and vegetables and the increasing intake of “energy-dense food.”

Acuin, at a forum organized last week by Greenpeace-Southeast Asia on the theme “Is there is a Food Emergency in the Philippines?” said that this double burden of malnutrition has led to micronutrient deficiencies.

These include anemia, which remains “a problem in vulnerable population groups” like children and pregnant and lactating women, as well as iodine-deficiency disorders, which are “a problem in pockets of the country.” Across the nation though, anemia and iodine deficiency incidence is declining, she said.

According to Acuin, household food intake patterns in the country have started to change for the worse.

While the typical Filipino meal is still rice, fish, and vegetables, the FNRI’s surveys have shown “an increasing trend for meat and poultry” but also “a declining trend for fruits and vegetables.” Filipinos, she said, are eating less and less fruits and vegetables on account of price, supply, and availability concerns.

Filipinos are eating “more energy-dense food”, Acuin added, but still the consumption of recommended energy is low for 30 percent of households, and even among the wealthy who can afford energy-dense food, “only 40 percent are meeting energy requirements.”

So is there a food emergency situation in the country? Acuin’s summary observations are gloomy. She said: “Food intakes, in general, are inadequate” and an “inequitable distribution of food resources” persists.

“Ang mga kundisyon na ito ay hindi bago, matagal na ito… Kung pagbabasehan yung Millennium Development Goals, wala pagbabago mula noong mga year 2000 ang underweight prevalence natin in children. Samantala, yung overweight at obesity sa adults ay tumataas,” Acuin said. [These conditions are not new. If we base it on the Millennium Development Goals, underweight prevalence among children has been steady since 2000. Meanwhile, overweight and obesity in adults are on the rise.]

Bernadette Balamban, Poverty and Human Development Statistics chief of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) offered insights on how malnutrition takes root and derives from poverty.

As of the first half of 2014, PSA showed that a family of five needed at least P6,125 a month on average to meet basic food needs, and at least P8,778 a month on average to meet both basic food and non-food needs. However, still eight of every 100 families earn less than the minimum income to afford even basic food needs.

Meanwhile, Neden Amiel Sarne, Agricultural Commodities Division chief of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), said achieving food security “requires investments in strategic programs and policies and putting in place appropriate policies.”

The Philippines’ food policy, he said, “should aim to achieve inclusive access to food while generating long-term sources of productivity and income growth.”

According to Sarne, access and price are the strategic issues. “What matters more to food security is access to food at the household level and at reasonably competitive process.”

Sarne listed “suggested strategies beyond 2016” to address food security and malnutrition concerns, including:

* “Investments in agriculture and fisheries programs that promote area-based development (in contrast to commodity-based development);

* “Prioritize investments that can increase and sustain productivity;

* “Investments in well-functioning irrigation systems and well-functioning Infrastructure;

* “Investments to increase resilience to climate-risk disasters, as well as to pests and diseases;

* “Promote further productivity enhancement along the entire supply chain, from production to marketing; and

* “Promote greater private sector investments support for agriculture through agri-business schemes such as contract-growing, joint-venture agreements, etc.”

About 150 students, civil society organization leaders, and government representatives attended the forum organized by Greenpeace-Southeast Asia at the UP Bahay ng Alumni in Diliman last week. PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas served as moderator. – With reporting by Vino Lucero, PCIJ, August 2015

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