The next big scare: the world impact of a poor life start

Take your pick of frights: climate change, water wrangles, the scramble for fuel and metals, high food prices starving the poor. Here’s another: bad food.

Climate change has inspired apocalyptic predictions of sudden tipping points, sea level rises, famines, extinction of species, including us, and worse. Industries have grown up to study, warn about, respond to and challenge it.

Water is a more proximate challenge: aquifers are plundered in India and northern China (and mid-Canterbury), huge waterworks in China control and divert water, affecting surrounding countries. Control of Tibet’s Himalayan headwaters is part of that. Water problems will affect food production and industrial development and may unsettle relations between nations.

Right now prices for oil, coal and raw materials have gone wild as China bids to secure its industrial future (including bids for coal here) and as rich countries try to maintain lifestyles. This has made Australia the Middle East of minerals.

In part, these prices reflect investors’ hunt for places to park funds amid the credit crunch turmoil, which will disappear when investors’ confidence in banks and corporations returns. But that leaves the industrialising countries’ rising fuel and materials demands, which only faster supplies can meet unless water, environmental, social and political constraints slow their growth.

Something similar is happening in food. Grain prices have gone stratospheric. Some producing countries are hoarding. This is now causing serious pain — and riots — within poor countries.

One cause is a switch to grain-fed meat in enriching countries. Another is rich Europe and United States government policies to grow biofuels on food land while blocking biofuel imports, in part to combat climate change (Europe) and in part to cut the need for oil imports (United States). (Actually, today’s biofuels do little, if anything, for climate change.)

Put all that together and you get grounds for poor-country resentment against rich countries.

Rich countries guzzled so much oil that when others industrialised oil was expensive. Rich countries have far more food than they need and their subsidies to their farmers have mucked up world food markets. Rich countries’ industrialisation started global warming and now they are shifting their dirty activities to industrialising countries — Fisher and Paykel is a case in point — while demanding climate change action from them.

If that resentment festers, might it not foster the sort of deadly anger now associated with Islamic extremists?

Now add in a slow burner: the impact of poor nutrition, combined with genetics, on the health, opportunities and lifespan of populations rich and poor.

We rich have gorged on fat and sugar (and alcohol) in grim pursuit of the easy and happy life. Medics warn of “epidemics” of diabetes and other diseases and disabilities. We may be about to reverse what has seemed an iron rule since the industrial revolution: that each generation lives longer than its parents.

Peter Gluckman of Auckland’s Liggins Institute is hot on this. He worries, on recent, fast-developing genomic science, that the environment in which child develops from conception to age 3 — including the mother’s diet and health before birth and cognitive inputs from parents after birth — fine-tunes the genes and affects the start a child gets in life.

A poor start in life compounds as the child goes through school and reaches adulthood, as Richie Poulton’s longitudinal Dunedin study shows. That is obviously an equity issue. It is also an economic issue: such a child is less productive as an adult and may also pile up large health and crime costs. And the cycle compounds as poor-start-in-life women have babies themselves.

This has obvious policy implications here which John Key, if he really is to be Future Man, might study.

But there is a bigger story. Gluckman has put together international scientists and economists to work on the issue. They met here in a workshop two weeks back.

Some World Bank economists are trying to develop ways of calculating the economic cost and the potential long-term return on investing in corrective interventions. Their interest is in the impact on poor countries’ capability.

Rich countries have a stake in that, for both equity and self-interested reasons.

A significant part of the problem is that fatty and sugary western foods have supplanted part of the traditional diets, which is adding to nutritional deficiencies. Some alarming trajectories were presented at the workshop.

So what? Are not the poor distant?

Not necessarily so any more, as 11 September 2001 showed.

The danger to the west is that if countries’ health and capacity failure is blamed on western influences, dangerous resentments might develop across wide swathes of the world against western culture and then against the west generally — with eventually deadly results.

Just another fright to add to your list.