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Unhealthy Developing World Food Markets

Findings from a Global Delphi Study

This article presents a brief excerpt-adaptation from a longer report entitled Unhealthy Developing World Food Markets: Results of a Real-Time Delphi Study. The study was conducted by The Millennium Project with support from the Rockefeller Foundation in May 2013.



Unhealthy developing world food markets are environmental, economic, and public health issues which are increasingly serious and are affecting development as a whole. Food culture, culinary traditions, and cooking skills are being lost, particularly in urban areas, contributing to the increase in demand for unhealthy food products. This is even more so in the rapidly growing urban regions of Africa and Asia, where change is accelerated by a complex set of forces, which, unless there is intervention, are likely to continue expanding hidden hunger. Leaders and officials have stressed that to combat hidden hunger and improve this situation will require a complex set of strategies and a holistic approach.1

Given these long-term, complex and critical challenges, The Millennium Project with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, conducted a study on the issues and prospects for unhealthy developing world food markets with special attention to Asia and Africa.


About The Issue

World population is expected to grow by another 2 billion people in just 37 years, creating unprecedented demand for food. The United Nations projects that Asia’s population will grow from 4.2 billion today to 5.9 billion by 2050 and urban Africa to grow from 414 million to more than 1.2 billion by 2050.2 To keep up with this growth, FAO forecasts that food production should increase by 70% by 2050. Over the same period food prices are likely to increase due to a combination of increasing forces.3 It is not clear that food nutrient density will keep pace with human needs.

Although the percent of hungry people in the world has fallen from over 30% in 1970 (with world population then at 3.7 billion) to 15% today (with world population at 7 billion) — the vast majority of whom are in Africa and Asia — concerns are increasing over the variety and nutritional quality of food. FAO estimates that 30% or 2 billion people suffer from “hidden hunger.”4 Hidden hunger describes a situation in which the intake of calories is sufficient but without sufficient vitamins and minerals. Some researchers argue that industrial agriculture reduces the nutrient content of crops, thus escalating the risk of hidden hunger. The International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Hunger Index report notes that much of the unhealthy food conditions in the developing world is related to poor government social policies, income inequalities, inefficient farming, post-traumatic stress following civil wars, and the low status and educational level of women.

Many trends affect the worldwide nutritional picture. Rising affluence in emerging economies gives people access to more varied diets. In this setting, food companies attempt to conquer new markets and competition for agricultural land among food and energy producers increases. Food prices, driven by growing demand, climate change, and monopolization rise and land grabbing increasingly threatens the livelihood of many poor. GMOs and monocultures expand and rapid urbanization, female participation in the cash economy, and societal changes are shifting culinary traditions. These and other emerging factors increasingly challenge the nutritional qualities of the world’s food, with health, development, and social consequences. While global childhood mortality and undernourishment have dropped, chronic diseases of the adult population are of increasing concern in poor and middle-income countries, causing about 80% of deaths.5

The World Bank notes that reliance on staple crops with technological production requirements makes the developing world vulnerable to volatile supply shocks that raise the price of food for the poor.6 The concentration of power of the agricultural biotechnology companies gives them a near monopoly over a large part of global food, undermining small farming and farmers’ rights, and most likely driving up costs. Although 95% of the world's farmers live in the developing world, producing the majority of the world's food, they are the poorest and most vulnerable to hidden hunger. Hidden hunger is an impediment to development and poverty is a factor in hidden hunger.


About The Study

The purpose of this particular Study was to gather and summarize expert opinion about the forces for change that may further degrade unhealthy developing world food markets (and the possible acceleration and intersection of these forces) and strategies that may improve the situation, with a particular focus on developing countries in Asia and Africa. The Rockefeller Foundation supported this study.

Between February 20, 2013 and April 30, 2013, The Millennium Project (MP) reviewed relevant Global Futures Intelligence System content and other Internet sources and documents to design a questionnaire, assemble an international panel, produce and manage the questionnaire as an online Real-Time Delphi (RTD), synthesize the panel responses and analyze the results. This report summarizes this work. The on-line RTD was also open to an international panel for inputs during the same period.

The RTD (an online questionnaire) was designed to collect judgments about developments that could impact the future of food and nutrition in developing countries, their seriousness, potential timeframes, and innovative solutions and strategies for addressing those possibilities by encouraging the positive and countering the negative. It also asked questions about the potential effectiveness of funding by foundations of different actions for improving the state of food nutrition. One hundred and twenty four people from 25 countries accessed the RTD. Of these, 95 provided a total of 5,426 answers.


The Findings

Based on the average responses of the panel, all dimensions of the problem of “hidden hunger” are becoming more serious. In order of increasing severity they are: water scarcity, biodiversity deterioration, loss and/or degradation of farmland, agribusiness and food market monopolies, low income to food price ratio, expansion of monoculture, food waste, lack of access to food with adequate micronutrient content, and dietary culture.

The panel was asked to rate a list of potential root causes. The root causes in order of importance, as rated by the panel, were: low income to food price ratio; lack of access to food with adequate micronutrients content; agribusiness and food market monopolies; biodiversity deterioration; water scarcity; loss of farmland; dietary culture; expansion of monoculture; and food waste.

All of the factors that might account for micronutrient deficiencies seem to be worsening simultaneously and those worsening the most were judged to be the most serious. For example, low income to food price ratio was seen to be increasing in severity and a very important root cause compared with other factors; and hence, should be given high priority in efforts to counter hidden hunger.

The resultant report contains a variety of suggestions to address a broad range of dimensions of the problem including their root causes. The executive summary contains 69 recommendations distilled from 1,054 written contributions from the international panel grouped by:

  • national policies (17),
  • economic policy incentives (8),
  • science and technology (8),
  • business-related (13),
  • education (9),
  • farming (6), and
  • cultural and general (8).

While it might be argued that the implementation of these suggestions could serve to significantly turn around the current situation, the reality is that no foundation, government, United Nations agency, corporation, university, or NGO acting alone could possibly achieve this; strategic coordination for implementing many of the recommendations in this report seems essential.

A process of assessing the suggestions made to address the hidden hunger problems concluded in a shortlist of proposals which included innovative proposals such as:

  • Support multiple cropping systems, including intercropping, based on traditional local farming and variable sowing dates adapted to changing climate, for increasing crop and biological diversity, enabling farmers to develop higher yielding, more productive varieties of crops with improved nutritious characteristics.
  • Taxing unhealthy foods and using the money raised by this means to subsidize (and thus drop the price) of healthy foods
  • Regulate low quality food such as soft drinks
  • Commissioning the private sector for health campaign ads with added benefits if targets are met; e.g., commissioning McDonald's to market healthy foods; if their burger demands drop by 10%, with salads increasing by x%, then an added financial bonus would be applied.
  • Using McDonald's "Happy Meal" strategy (child-appealing and friendly gifts) but focused on the parents to encourage buying of nutritious meals. Happy meals (featuring nutritious good tasting foods), advertising, the star system (e.g. “What is Schwarzenegger eating today)?


The results of this study can be useful for identifying evolving patterns, their potential impacts, and strategies for addressing the situation, as well as for setting priorities for potential funding by foundations. They can also be useful for exploring alternative futures for research, technological development, and innovations, as well as policies for improving healthy food production, processing, marketing, and consumption preferences.


Adapted for FFD by Geci Karuri-Sebina

Chair & Director:South African Node at The Millennium Project
Executive Manager: Programmes at SA Cities Network
Research Associate:Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (IERI)

Read more about Geci and her view on being a futurist.


1Congress Report, International Congress Hidden Hunger, March 6-9, 2013, Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany available at: https://ew.uni-hohenheim.de/fileadmin/einrichtungen/hiddenhunger/Congress_Report_HP.pdf
2UN Press Release: Africa and Asia to lead urban population growth in the next four decades http://esa.un.org/unup/pdf/WUP2011_Press-Release.pdf
3Forces increasing the long-term food prices include increasing affluence (especially in India and China), soil erosion and the loss of cropland, increasing fertilizer costs (high oil prices), market speculation, aquifer depletion, falling water tables and water pollution, diversion of crops to biofuels, increasing meat consumption, falling food reserves, diversion of water from rural to urban, and a variety of climate change impacts, such as saltwater creeping into fresh water agricultural land, increased weather damage. Global Challenge 3, Chapter 1, 2012 State of the Future, The Millennium Project, Washington DC.
4The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012, FAO, Rome 2012.
5World Health Organization, Chronic diseases and health promotion http://www.who.int/chp/en/
6This was a conclusion based on several reports and papers, including:
a. Food Prices, Nutrition, and the Millennium Development Goals http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPROSPECTS/Resources/334934-1327948020811/8401693-1327957211156/8402494-1334239337250/Chapter-1.pdf;
b. Managing Food Price Risks and Instability in an Environment of Market Liberalization http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTARD/Resources/ManagingFoodPriceRisks.pdf;
c. Contribution of agricultural growth to reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3027e/i3027e04.pdf;
d. Safeguarding Food Security in volatile Global Markets http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i2107e/i2107e.pdf


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