Since the end of the Second World War, the face of malnutrition in Taiwan has changed dramatically. Once among the ranks of third world nations, Taiwan has enjoyed meteoric economic growth over the past seventy years. This growth has raised living standards, reduced poverty and eliminated undernutrition as a development issue. But despite this newfound prosperity, Taiwan continues to face malnutrition in the form of obesity and poor diets.

Between 1895 and 1945, Japan ruled over Taiwan as an imperial master. Over these five decades, Japan structured the island as a satellite granary. Taiwan’s principal crops became sugar and rice, and by the 1930s, Taiwan exported more than half of its agricultural output to the Japanese home islands. In fact, according to researcher Samuel Ho, the amount of rice available for consumption in Taiwan had fallen 24 percent by the 1940s. Although Japanese administrators modernized Taiwanese agriculture and invested in transportation infrastructure, they did little to improve the lot of the poorest Taiwanese: real wages remained low and malnutrition prevalent.

Soon after the end of Japanese rule, Taiwan found itself in a position to tackle malnutrition. No longer Japan’s offshore breadbasket, Taiwanese farmers saw export markets for their crops collapse. They thus began putting significantly less of their rice crop on the market and retaining more for home consumption. In addition, the Taiwanese government implemented land reforms that broke up large agricultural estates and turned tenant farmers into landowners. Combined with other “pro-farmer” policies and a growing industrial export sector, Taiwan had effectively eliminated malnutrition by the early 1970s.

But with the development of an advanced economy in Taiwan, malnutrition has resurfaced as a public health concern. According to University of Washington sources, dietary risks are the second-greatest contributor to Taiwan’s disease burden. Whereas most Taiwanese were once unable to afford a varied, nutritious diet, many now eschew healthy eating electively. To add to this concern, contemporary Taiwanese suffer from increasing rates of obesity: 31 percent of females and 41 percent of males were overweight in 2013, and obesity in people under 20 has increased by more than 50 percent since 1980. This “double burden” of malnutrition — undernutrition paired with obesity — among Taiwan’s youth may foretell the resurgence of malnutrition in Taiwan as a public health issue.

Recent research also suggests that cultural norms may perpetuate patterns of malnutrition in Taiwan. Researchers Lin and Tsai find that girls born to “marital immigrant” parents (in which one spouse — usually the wife — hails from abroad, typically Southeast Asia in the case of Taiwan) are significantly shorter and lighter than Han Chinese girls. Lin and Tsai note that Taiwanese men who marry immigrant women are disproportionately disadvantaged economically and physically. These men face immense pressure to preserve the family line, leading them to spoil their sons at the expense of their daughters. Given such ongoing changes in Taiwanese society, malnutrition in Taiwan may prove more intractable than previously thought.

– Leo Zucker

Sources: Malnutrition in Taiwan, Nutrilite Economic History Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Nutritional Research
Photo: World Vision International

On April 25, Nepal experienced a 7.8 magnitude earthquake with several devastating aftershocks over the next month. The damage destroyed the central part of the country, killing over 8,000 people and leaving thousands of others homeless without proper access to water and food.

Before the earthquake, Nepal already had some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. Of the children under five, 41 percent have stunted growth, 29 percent are underweight and 11 percent are considered wasted. The nutrient deficiencies are high in expectant mothers as well, which puts babies at a disadvantage before they are even born.

The malnutrition rate in Nepal can be attributed to agricultural problems. The crop production is poor, infrastructure is in deteriorating conditions (making it hard to transport food and aid to areas in need), and climate changes affect the harvest. The recent earthquake has only propagated the lack of agricultural security in Nepal. Landslides have blocked roads and rivers. Flooding is a major concern. Cracks and rubble make it difficult to navigate through cities. All of this accumulates to slow down aid and food supplies reaching people.

While Nepal has been making some progress with the issue of malnutrition, the recent earthquake threatens the past positive movements forward. Currently, about 70,000 children are at risk for malnutrition. In total there are over 1.7 million children in need of aid after the earthquake. In the worst hit areas, like Sinhapalchok and Kathmandu, children live in such dire conditions that they need therapeutic foods–one being a peanut-like paste with high energy and lipid content.

UNICEF is working to combat the downturn in malnutrition rates caused by the earthquake. They are providing therapeutic foods to children in need, screening children to determine who is at risk, providing vaccines and clean water, and handing out supplements. UNICEF is working with national and international aid donors as well as the Nepalese government to reach those who need the most help most. So far, the World Food Program has been able to feed 1.8 million people in difficult to reach places in Nepal.

Aid groups are working double time to decrease the malnutrition rate. The focus is on protecting the children, as they are the most vulnerable during calamitous times. There is still hope that Nepal can begin to see the positive steps forward that had been made before the devastating earthquake and tremors hit, and attempts to re-gain its momentum in combating malnutrition.

-Katherine Hewitt

Sources: UNICEF, BBC, World Food Program
Photo: Expo