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ISET Economist Blog

A blog about economics in the South Caucasus.

We May Not Be Hungry, but We Are Starving...

It is a well known fact that nearly a half of Georgian population is involved in agriculture, while Georgia imports around 60% of all the food it consumes. High food import share and food security  are important issues for Georgia, widely discussed among the policy makers and in the media. One issue that remains largely in the shadows of public attention is Georgia’s struggle with nutritional deficiencies and unhealthy, undiversified diets. 

Surveys show that bread is one of the main sources of calories in Georgian diets, accounting for as much as 63% of individuals’ caloric intake. This is about twice as much as the benchmark value in developed countries. To compare, in countries such as the United States and the UK the share of dietary energy supply from starchy foods (i.e. bread or equivalent) is about 25-30% of the total caloric intake. In countries like Namibia, India, Shri Lanka the share of energy coming from starchy foods is around 60% (similar to Georgia). In very poor countries, like Mozambique, Bangladesh, Lesotho this share exceeds 80%, which makes their population extremely vulnerable to malnutrition. 

Another measure of national dietary health is the so called Dietary Diversity Score.  The idea behind this measure is that a healthy diet must involve consumption of food products from different food categories, such the 10 categories indicated in the table below.

Table 1. Food categories

1. Cereals 6. Meat
2. Eggs 7. Milk and dairy products
3. Fish and sea products 8. Oils and fats
4. Leguminous 9. Vegetables
5. Nuts and hazelnut 10. Tubers and roots
Source: Based on FAO

The Dietary Diversity Score (DDS) indicates how many of these food groups are consumed on the level of a household, by an individual in a household, and also by different groups of the population - women and children. The table below presents some of the DDS scores for Georgia.

Table 2. Dietary Diversity Scores (DDS) for Georgia

DDS Low wealth tertile Medium wealth tertile High wealth tertile
HDDS (Households) 4.87 5.37 5.71
IDDS (Individuals) 4.77 4.95 4.99
WDDS (Women) 4.58 4.87 4.85
Note: Low DD – consuming 3 food groups out of 10; Medium DD – consuming 4-5 food groups out of 10; High DD – consuming 6 food groups out of 10.
Source: National Nutrition Survey conducted by OXFAM in Georgia and ELKANA



According to the National Nutrition Survey conducted by OXFAM and Elkana, most of Georgian HHs and individuals have medium DDS and consume 4-5 food groups daily. As to children, more than 50% of children aged from 10 to 17 years old consume on average 5 food groups (cereals, oils and fats, vegetables, milk and dairy products, tubers and roots) and only children in high wealth HHs (top 33% of households) consume 7 food groups (fruit and meat in addition to the abovementioned 5 foods). At the same time more than 50% of women in the households consume just 4 food groups (cereals, oils and fats, vegetables, milk and dairy products), even in those families where average number of consumed food groups is 5. This signals that there is an unequal distribution of food in the households of the same tertile, and that women’ diet is less diversified.

According to the same survey, Georgians experience the deficit in essential nutrients. People in Georgia lack access to vitamin-rich fruits, as well as meat and fish containing protein, iron and vitamin A. Only around 35% of population consumes iron rich animal products and consumption is even lower in women and adolescent (33% and 34% respectively). Instead, micro and macro elements are replaced by excess consumption of fats and sugar.


HOW DO PEOPLE CHOOSE WHAT THEY EAT?

For economists people’s choices generally stem from some type of optimizing behavior. In the case of diet, the optimization problem that people solve is that of minimizing cost (or expenditure on food), subject to certain dietary requirements (e.g. consuming a certain number of calories and sufficient amount of nutrients such as iron, protein, vitamin C, etc.). For short-term survival, calorie requirements are more important than nutrient requirements - people need to make sure that they do not starve for energy, but nutrient balance is less crucial in the short run. Thus, poor people, will tend to consume only a few foods to derive the needed amount of calories (recall that in the old days people in Central and Eastern Europe often survived on bread, cheese, and just a few types of vegetables). 

Modern economic research shows that as incomes rise, people will not increase their calorie intake as much as they will increase their general spending on food. In other words, as people become richer, they would prefer to consume a greater variety of foods with the same caloric value.  This finding is consistent with the Georgian data – we can see that high wealth households generally consume more food groups than poor households.


IS IT ONLY ABOUT MONEY?

In Georgia spending on food accounts for 65% of the total spending among poor households. Half of the population spends more than 50% of their income on food and thus sacrifices food diversity. Households with higher income can of course afford more diversified diets; and yet, income is not the only factor affecting what people eat.  Lack of proper information on nutrition, bad habits, and cultural norms are among the factors that influence poor dietary choices among the population. 

In their book “Poor Economics” Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo provide very interesting insights into how poor people (for whom food comprises 50% - 70% of total consumption) make decisions about spending on food. Empirical evidence shows that even those people who are not consuming enough food are not willing to spend all extra income on food. If all extra money were devoted to food, then food spending should go up proportionally faster than total spending. However according to the research even among the very poor people, food expenditures increase much less than one for one with the budget.

What is even more interesting is that the money devoted to food is not spent to maximize the calories or micronutrients intake.  Studies in India, Morocco and in some other countries showed that increase in purchasing power does not always result in better nutrition because there are too many other things, the so called “cheap luxuries”, which are competing with food. Examples of cheap luxuries are TVs, mobile phones, computers - things that are considered by many people to be more important than food. Another “competitor” to food is the spending on various social events like funerals, weddings, birthdays etc. Frequently people are forced to spend on these types of events because of the social pressure or a very natural desire to lead an interesting life in a place where there are no movie theaters, concert halls, or even shops.


FOOD AND NUTRITION EDUCATION IS CRUCIAL FOR GEORGIA’S FUTURE

Although the reasons why people do not spend all their income on food (even when they desperately need food) are more or less clear, it is vital to realize that the benefits of good nutrition are particularly important for two categories of people who do not decide what they eat: unborn babies and young children. Good nutrition at early age increases lifetime earnings by making people more productive. 

Current technological advances allow for purchasing of relatively cheap and at the same time nutritional food. Nowadays, in many countries iodized salt or fortified food (read our blog “Mandatory Flour Fortification in Georgia: a Boon or a Burden for the Poor?") is available, but not always demanded by the population. It is critical for the government to understand that proper food policy is not only about ensuring adequate amount of food. The nutritional quality of food is often as important. 

In spite of the fact that Georgia is more developed than many poor countries that are still struggling with hunger and illiteracy, our higher incomes and education levels do not seem to translate into better nutrition for kids and adults. According to FAO, the percentage of kids under five who are stunted (reduced growth rate in human development) in Georgia is as high as 11.3%. This fact signals the lack of attention to investment in proper nutrition, which is as important as investment in education. Both shape the future of the next generation and hence the future of the country.

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