The Importance of Protein in the Developing World

– A Solution to Food and Nutrition Insecurity

Originally published August 2018.

Executive Summary

The next 30 years will be a time of incredible importance and change in the world’s history. Recent estimates project that the world’s population will rise to 9.8 billion by 2050 with almost 80% of that population coming from Asia (5.2 billion) and Africa (2.5 billion). With the increased population comes the continued need to increase food production and availability that will not only feed but nourish the world’s population.

Understanding the First 1000 Days of Life

The Importance of Protein Throughout the Lifecycle

Protein plays a significant role within the human body including building muscle, bone, and brain development. Its components, amino acids, are the building blocks of this development and are critically important in the first 1,000 days of life and throughout the lifecycle. Proteins also serve as a secondary source of energy when amounts of carbohydrates and fat in the diet are inadequate to provide sufficient energy. If a child‘s diet is adequate in protein without the needed carbohydrates or fat for energy, the full benefit benefits for growth development will not be achieved as it be used as an energy source.

Bridging the Gap

Agricultural production in the last half century has largely focused on cereal crops such as rice, wheat, and maize. The Green Revolution and subsequent periods have led to a three-fold increase in the production of cereal crops. Price reductions in these crops increased overall calorie intake; however dietary diversity suffered for many poor people, as traditional, nutritionally-diverse foods became relatively more expensive. Presently, countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa rely on starchy staple crops as the main energy and protein source of their diet. For West and East Africa, starchy roots like cassava are a major source of calories yet provide very little protein (3% of total energy in cassava). Roots, tubers, and plantains account for at least 20% of all calories for sixteen countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Asia, and particularly South Asia, rice is the dominant staple crop, providing 62% of total energy in Bangladesh. And while this crop does have high protein digestibility, the overall protein content is low from 3–7%. Diversification of diet through the production of legumes such as groundnuts in Zambia or the combination of groundnuts and beans in Uganda has helped improve protein adequacy in local diets. Compared to countries in the developing world, countries in the West, including the USA and Europe, consume a more varied diet. In addition to the starchy crops, such as wheat and corn, the plant proportion of the Western diet includes more fruit and vegetables. More than 20% of total energy intake comes from nutrient-dense animal-based protein, of which beef consumption plays an important part.

The Future of Protein

Globally, the world consumes about 57% of its protein from plant-based foods (wheat, rice, and corn) and the remainder from animal-based foods — meat 18%, dairy 10%, fish 6%, and others. The next food movement will have to include more sources of protein produced in a sustainable manner. While plant sources account for a majority of the protein consumption for 76% of the global population, it is still expected that the need for meat production will increase by 200 MMT. Animal-based foods are excellent sources of protein but contribute 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions (Beef and milk production in particular account for 41% and 20%, respectively, of the sector’s total emissions). Innovative production in animal agriculture methods as well as production of alternative sources of protein can help attack the dual challenge of increasing supply in a sustainable manner.

Time for Action

As 2050 approaches, the global economies must be critically aware of the dynamics that are impacting global food production and consumption trends, creating a pressing need to transform our current food system. Ongoing population shifts are continuing to surface as key determinants of how future food production might be impacted. The population is growing, largely in Africa and Asia, and is moving to urban centers, providing more opportunities for access to food retail and foodservice establishments. Overall, rising affluence will lead to increased demand for high-quality protein as well as the development of an infrastructure that can support the demand. However, the urgency to address the chronic issues of protein-energy malnutrition is of critical importance today as the “hidden hunger” is limiting productivity and economic growth opportunities for developing countries. More importantly, the most vulnerable members of society — children and their mothers- are affected. Malnourished mothers and children suffering from the effects of malnutrition (stunting) are specifically in need of changes to the food system to ensure appropriate and nutritious food options are available during their critical life phases.

Context Global Development® (CGD) is a non-profit organization that leads agricultural and social impact programs worldwide.