Rapid economic growth and increased agricultural productivity over the past two decades has seen the proportion of undernourished people drop by almost half. Many developing countries that used to suffer from famine and hunger can now meet the nutritional needs of the most vulnerable.
Lao PDR has achieved the MDG target of halving the proportion of hungry people. The proportion of undernourished in the population has declined from 42.8 percent in 1990 to around 18.5 percent in 2015. However, the country still has a significant level of hunger, as measured by the Global Hunger Index. Around one-fifth of the population consumes less than the minimum dietary energy requirements.
Lao PDR is off track on the MDG target of reducing underweight and stunting. In 2015, 35.6 percent of children under five years of age were stunted, 25.5 percent were underweight and 9.6 percent were wasted. Since the early 1990s, stunting has declined at an average annual rate of 0.8 per cent, less than the average population growth rate, which means that if present trends continue, the number of stunted children will likely increase.
Undernutrition in Lao PDR shows strong inequalities across regions and groups, associated with poverty patterns. In rural areas without road access, stunting and underweight prevalence are twice those in urban areas. The prevalence of stunting among children from the poorest households is three times higher than that in the richest households. This gap has widened in recent years, with little progress among the poorest children.
Infant and young child feeding practices are poor, and diets lack diversity. The main issues are the relatively low rates of exclusive breastfeeding under the age of 6 months, the alarming increase in the use of baby formula, inappropriate complementary feeding and low dietary diversity for both mothers and children. Only an estimated 5 percent of young children have a minimum acceptable diet. The lack of diversity in foods leads to micronutrient deficiencies. The diets for children as well as adults are rice-dominated (often glutinous rice) and deficient in protein, fats and micronutrients, relative to WHO-recommended levels.
The high levels of child stunting in Lao PDR underscore the need to address maternal nutrition. Since the process of becoming a stunted child begins in utero, and continues up to two years of age (that is, the first 1,000 days of life), the mother’s dietary intake and her health and nutrition status before and during pregnancy is a crucial determinant of stunting. High anaemia rates, low contraceptive use and high fertility rates contribute to poor maternal nutrition.
Lao-specific cultural beliefs and food taboos among the 49 ethnic groups are not always conducive to good nutrition. Pregnant women often eat less, believing that they are preventing obstructed labour, as they do not want bigger babies. Lactating women in urban areas consume a low diversity diet excessively based on glutinous rice, which puts infants at risk for vitamin A, C and thiamine deficiencies. Infants in their first or second month are often given chewed glutinous rice, a practice associated with stunting and possibly with bladder stones in childhood. On the other hand, some traditional beliefs are beneficial: for example, the Phunoi’s belief that children with measles should eat mango and papaya, both good sources of vitamin A.
Food insecurity appears to be less critical than malnutrition but is nonetheless a significant issue. While 89 percent of the population has acceptable food consumption patterns, around 11 percent of rural households have poor and borderline food consumption. Households with poor/borderline food consumption tend to cultivate less land, rely more on cash crop production as a source of income, had less access to vegetable plots, and have household heads with lower educational attainment, compared to households with acceptable food consumption patterns. Households most vulnerable to food insecurity are those living in remote areas with little access to basic infrastructure, households with low engagement in fishing and hunting or unskilled labours, those practicing upland farming on small slopes, and those without kitchen gardens.
The threats to food security cut across a broad range of sectors. Products from terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity can provide much needed essential fatty acids and proteins, but these products are under threat. Population and land pressure contribute to soil degradation and decreasing yields. Other threats include UXOs, large-scale investment projects, rainfall dependent agricultural practices, limited access to irrigation, disasters, disease outbreaks among livestock and the difficulties in finding economically attractive legal alternatives to opium growing.
Lao PDR reaffirmed its commitment to fight hunger and undernutrition through the launch of the National Zero Hunger Challenge in May 2015. The country’s Agricultural Development Strategy and the National Nutrition Strategy will provide the framework for achieving the Zero Hunger Challenge. High-level commitment to tackling undernutrition is also seen in various policy and planning instruments, such as the 2010 MDG Acceleration Framework action plan and the National Socio-Economic Development Plan.
The UN in Lao PDR has supported the Government to develop a Zero Hunger Challenge Roadmap to show how existing strategies and plans addressed the five objectives of the Challenge.
Zero Hunger is one of 17 Global Goals that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. An integrated approach is crucial for progress across the multiple goals.Learn more about Goal 2 and its targets.