Could the results of a starvation diet 30 years ago hint at our future?

Feb. 5, 2012

The fossil record suggests that one response to a warmer world is for many species to become smaller as nutritious food becomes scarcer. Thirty years ago this became a tragic reality in Brazil.

By Jan Rocha
Climate News Network

SÃO PAULO – The prediction by scientists that humans would respond to climate change by becoming hobbit-sized in order to survive has already happened in Brazil. A near-starving population in the remote northeast produced a generation of children who became pigmy-sized adults after being brought up on a diet of rats, snakes and cacti. Adults grew to only 1.35 meters (4.5 feet).

UNICEF concluded that 3.5 million children aged one to five years old were permanently affected by dwarfism.

This is exactly what scientists had predicted. They were looking at the fossil record of the last time the world had warmed by 6° Celsius, 55 million years ago. In that warmer world, a team of 30 scientists concluded, plants became less nutritious; mammals, insects and even earthworms had to eat more to survive. In response they became smaller and reproduced earlier.

Climate News Network first reported on this work, involving scientists from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands. Phillip Jardine, from the Department of Geography at Birmingham University and a member of the team, said that dwarfism was expected to be a successful survival strategy.

Apocalyptic vision

Unknown to the scientists on the project, this apocalyptic vision of the future had, in fact, already occurred. In the 1980s Brazil's Northeast Region – the poorest, most backward region of the country, much of it semi-arid – was hit by a prolonged drought that left millions of families starving. Without food, they resorted to eating rodents and cactus plants.

They were encouraged by a local Red Cross doctor, José Pontes Neto, who was quoted in a UNICEF study carried out at the time as advising the population to "go on eating rats, snakes and chameleons, they are a source of protein." But the doctor warned that the infant population in the drought areas was so riddled with intestinal worms and chronic hunger that the result would be a generation of "nanicos" – dwarfs.

The UNICEF study concluded that 3.5 million children aged one to five years old were permanently affected by dwarfism. Specialists called it "nutritional dwarfism."

One of Brazil's leading researchers into nutrition at the time, Nelson Chaves, blamed the region's chronic sub-nutrition not only on the long-lasting drought but on the existing unequal social structures.

'Caused and maintained by man'

In a report published in April 1984 and sponsored by the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses, Chaves wrote:

"Due to protein deficiency, the stature of the population in Zona da Mata (the main sugarcane growing region) is progressively diminishing, becoming similar to that of African pigmies.

"But the dwarfism of the African pigmy is genetic, while the march towards dwarfism we see here is from sub-nutrition. It is a consequence of progressive endemic hunger, caused and maintained by man. It is hunger resulting from economic and social inequality, from poverty …. The final result is a deteriorated population, sick, hungry."

Chaves said that while the sugarcane plantations, owned by the local elite, received financial support from the then military government, impoverished rural workers were ignored.

At the time, the workers were not even allowed to keep vegetable plots for their own subsistence. Sugarcane consumed the land. Underpaid and exploited, people could afford to buy little food. Their basic diet, consisting of beans and manioc flour, lacked protein. Meat was almost never eaten.

Ground-breaking story

This 'sub-race' is the result of hunger, subnutrition and poverty.
- Xico Sa, reporter

Seven years later, in 1991, the Brazilian newspaper A Folha de São Paulo caused a sensation with a front-page story describing "a new species" of human in the Northeast, dubbed the "gabiru man."

Reporter Xico Sa wrote: "This 'sub-race' is the result of hunger, subnutrition and poverty."

Gabiru is the name of a species of large rat found in the region, and was originally given to the undersized inhabitants by Brazilian sociologist Josue de Castro in his classic study, "The Geography of Hunger."

As a result of the Folha's story, a parliamentary committee of inquiry was set up to enquire into the causes of hunger in Brazil. It concluded that six million children were undernourished and that 10 percent of them would suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives.

Improved nutrition

Since the 1980s nutritional standards in the Northeast Region have improved along with the economic situation. Between 1989 and 1997, children's average height increased by seven centimeters, according to research by the government statistics agency, IBGE.

An IBGE researcher said: "Height is one of the best indicators of the quality of life of a population. In the Northeast, logically there are still undernourished and undersized people, but the gabiru is more and more of an exception."

The 2002 introduction of government welfare programs and increases in the minimum wage have raised millions above the poverty line. IBGE research now shows there are more obese than undernourished people in the region.

These programs mean that although once again the Northeast is in the grip of a devastating drought, people do not starve. Television coverage shows dried-up riverbeds, withered crops and the carcasses of animals that have died of starvation. Water tankers crisscross the dry countryside supplying villages, but people are no longer forced to eat rats and snakes to survive.

The drought cycle in Brazil's Northeast has existed as long as records go back, but in recent years the droughts have become more frequent. An increase in global warming could make the semi-arid region uninhabitable.

Jan Rocha is a freelance journalist living in Brazil and a former correspondent there for the BBC World Service and The Guardian. 

Climate News Network is a journalism news service led by four veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide. 

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at]


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