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Food Security

What is hidden hunger?

Publication date: 14-02-2024, Read time: 4 min

Hidden hunger is a popular term to refer to micronutrient deficiencies. Micronutrient deficiencies are a form of malnutrition caused by the insufficient uptake of vitamins and other micronutrients. This phenomenon is common in developing regions with cereal-based diets, but also increasing in developed countries, where individuals are opting for less diverse food diets. Today, more than two billion people worldwide are affected by the ‘hidden hunger’.  

Malnutrition caused by insufficient calorie intake is visible, but micronutrient malnutrition is not, which is the reason for the name 'hidden hunger'. Although not visible at first glance, micronutrient deficiencies have detrimental effects on the human body. They significantly impact the immune system, overall health and well-being. And they are particularly harmful to children. In countries with a higher incidence of micronutrient deficiencies, there is a greater number of children affected by stunting, which occurs when children are shorter than they should be for their age. 

A global problem 

Hidden hunger is not a problem that only affects developing countries. In developed countries, the food industry has focused for decades on increasing yield and less on  nutritional quality. This has lead to deficiencies.  

One case study that took place in Finland revolutionized the field. In the decade of the 1980’s the Finnish Government discovered that the population was suffering from selenium deficiency. Selenium is a micronutrient extremely important for human health and the immune system. Medical studies have linked a lack of selenium to the development of different types of diseases, so the government decided to address this issue. Scientists soon realized that this deficiency was due to the soil in Finland lacking selenium. 

Over 5 to 10 years, the Finnish government released a campaign to increase the selenium concentration in the soil, so that they could increase the selenium concentration in the crops consumed by the local population. After the selenium levels increased, they saw that selenium deficiency in the population decreased - and with it, many types of diseases.  

Remote sensing to assess micronutrient deficiencies 

Nowadays, in countries like the Netherlands, it is still not easy to assess micronutrient values in crops such as wheat. With hidden hunger on the rise, this assessment is becoming ever more important. Scientists are developing remote sensing methods to measure micronutrient concentrations in crops.  

Remote sensing is a cost-effective alternative to traditional sampling that requires less time and resources. By using technologies such as satellite hyperspectral imaging, researchers can analyze the plants to estimate their nutrient content. This approach not only enables a more efficient and accurate assessment of micronutrient values in crops like wheat but also has the potential to be scaled up for large-scale monitoring across countries. With these remote sensing techniques, policymakers, farmers, and nutritionists can make informed decisions to address hidden hunger and ensure the best nutrition for the population. 

What do we do at ITC?

HyNUTRI is a project that aims to develop the potential of European Space Agency (ESA) Sentinel-2 multispectral broadband (MSBB) and Italian Space Agency (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana - ASI) PRISMA hyperspectral narrowband data to assess and predict nutrients in crops. 

HyNUTRI was funded by the European Space Agency, and developed by the ITC Faculty in partnership with the National Research Council of Italy – Institute for Electromagnetic Sensing of Environment (CNR-IREA). 

To learn more, visit the HyNUTRI project page

Food Security
Last edited: 07-05-2024

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