Stunting – low height for age – is a striking measure of chronic undernutrition in children under 5. More than 1 in 5 children in the world are stunted from not having enough nutritious food. While rates are very low in high-income countries, up to half of the children are stunted in some low- and middle-income countries.
To solve the problem, these countries need to improve their food systems, to see that everyone is able to procure sufficient meat, eggs, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, tubers, peas, beans and grains. Too often, instead, leaders look for salvation from just one food – a food that can be healthy enough, if it's balanced by other things in the diet, but that can't, on its own, prevent stunting. That food is rice.
A country that illustrates the problem tragically well is Timor-Leste, a small island-nation in Southeast Asia. Fifty percent of its children under 5 are stunted. What's more, 38 percent are underweight and 11 percent are wasted – measures of still more acute undernutrition.
In Timor-Leste, rice is the main source of calories for most households, and people generally choose it over other foods. The country imports most of the rice it consumes, however, and the national government wants to boost domestic production to the point where imports are no longer needed. That way, Timor-Leste could better control its own food systems and assure its food security. But this plan can do little to improve nutrition for Timor-Leste's children.
Nor is it the most culturally appropriate strategy, because it does not reflect Timor-Leste's indigenous diet of roots and tubers. Consider that the Timorese have only recently emerged from a long period of colonization and occupation. Portugal controlled East Timor for centuries, until the resistance movement won independence in late 1975. Indonesia then quickly invaded and occupied. Again, the Timorese fought spiritedly, until they won independence in 1999. At least 25 percent of the population was killed in the process. And in the years since 2002, when the country became fully independent, several smaller conflicts have flared up, requiring United Nations peacekeepers to settle things.
Only in the past five years has Timor-Leste been peaceful and stable enough for its leaders to focus on improving people's lives. Today, almost 27 percent of the population remains undernourished, and more than 1 in 10 people report being hungry. Seasonal hunger – which occurs in January and February, after the previous season's harvest has run out but the next season's hasn't arrived – leaves half of Timorese with only enough food for one meal a day, at most.
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What's ironic, in a country with such strong national pride, is that rice has come to be thought of as a traditional food – when it was the Indonesian occupiers who promoted it, as they looked down on the Timorese' own foods. Many in the country have little else to eat. Less than half the population consumes meat and other animal-source foods, and even fewer eat pulses (peas, beans and other legume seeds) and fruit. This is why so many people's diets are deficient in protein and micronutrients.
Unfortunately, as the Timor-Leste government looks to restructure the national food system, it seems to be overly concerned with ending food imports – at the expense of improving nutrition. By dropping its focus on rice, the government could address both problems.
Rather than grow rice in greater quantity, Timor-Leste should embrace more diverse and nutritious foods, including pulses, tubers, vegetables and fruits – as well as cash crops such as timber, coffee and spices.
Rice provides needed calories for many populations around the world. However, many other countries along with Timor-Leste – including China, India, Bangladesh and Nepal – place too much emphasis on rice. Every country has the right and the responsibility to create its own food system. At the same time, every person has the right to eat sufficient nutritious food.