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Université de Montréal

Portrait of a researcher

Food insecurity: A crisis situation

Malek Batal


Full Professor, Faculty of Medicine - Department of Nutrition

Accredited Member, School of Public Health - Department of Social and Preventive Medicine

Malek Batal was born in Lebanon and came to Canada in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in human nutrition and dietetics and a master’s degree in food science from the American University of Beirut. Like many landed immigrants, he had a difficult time getting recognition for his credentials. But three years later, he was working on a Ph.D. in human nutrition at McGill University and celebrating his 30th birthday in a Yellowknife bar.

“At first, it was quite a change to be at the end of the world studying the traditional foods of the Indigenous peoples of the Yukon and of Denendeh in the Northwest Territories,” he says. “But I love learning about cultures and I’m sensitive to political issues and social justice.” During the years he spent travelling across the vast Far North, he had two car accidents, fell in love with the “end of the world” and became an authority on the food challenges facing First Nations, caught between ancestral practices and the siren call of modernity.

His work has also taken him to the antithesis of Yellowknife: to Ecuador, Haiti, Africa and Belgium. Since 2014, Batal has been the director of TRANSNUT, a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre on Nutrition Changes and Development. “Rapid dietary changes in developing countries are causing increases in obesity and diabetes, and spreading the multiple plagues of malnutrition: anemia, vitamin A deficiency, stunted growth in children,” he says. Since 2020, Batal has also held the Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Health Inequalities.

You’re sounding the alarm about rising food insecurity.

I became aware of it while participating in a large-scale 10-year study, from 2008 to 2018, in 92 First Nations communities. It found that half of the households suffer from food insecurity, much higher than the Canadian average. Food insecurity has become a global problem, driven by globalization, industrialization and dumping.* This is very worrisome for all countries that depend on imports for their food. The situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic and can only get worse with climate change.

* Selling a product on a foreign market at below the domestic price, sometimes even below cost.

Are you personally very strict about what you eat?

I’m very strict about the taste. I don’t like processed, manipulated foods that no longer resemble “real” food. It is a major social problem. Food is contributing to the destruction of the ecosystem and of agricultural land. In Quebec, we see endless fields of corn and soybeans that are being grown for animal feed or for export, at the expense of family farming and the preservation of the rural landscape.

Follow Malek Batal’s work on UdeMNouvelles.