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Nutrition for Growth

GENEVA – This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country holds this year’s G-8 Presidency, is hosting a “Nutrition for Growth” summit in London. The issue could not be more urgent. We need the political will to tackle malnutrition now, with access to nutritious food recognized as a fundamental human right.

Malnutrition kills an innocent child every five seconds, and is responsible for 11% of the global burden of disease. The summit rightly focuses on the direct links between nutrition and productivity, economic growth, and political stability. Investment in nutrition is investment in generations of children in poor communities, and the summit must place women and mothers at the center of proposed solutions.

That is all the more important because a new baby boom is taking place – not in the United States or Europe, but in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Infants born over the next 20 years will enter adulthood at a unique time: these regions’ working populations will outnumber their non-working populations by two to one. This provides a rare opportunity to boost economic growth, save and improve lives, and help families, communities, and countries move from poverty to prosperity.

Recent research has shown that nutrition can be a major catalyst of inclusive economic growth, with each dollar of investment yielding a return of $15-138 dollars. Defeating malnutrition is not only an ethical duty; we also know that it can boost GDP growth in Africa and Asia by up to 11%.

We now know that giving pregnant mothers and their babies essential nutrients in the critical 1,000-day window from conception to a child’s second birthday is the best investment in their health and that of society at large. The alternative is stunting, which currently afflicts an astronomical 165 million children. Indeed, stunting has come to represent the true face of contemporary global poverty, causing irreparable damage to children’s cognitive development and physical growth.

Moreover, there is ample medical evidence that malnutrition in this “window of nutrition” is linked to increases in hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even obesity, resulting in higher health-care costs later in life. But in India, a 2011 study of 112 rural districts across the country found that “less than 20% of mothers had heard the word for malnutrition in their local language.”

In Africa, most food is produced by women smallholder farmers. Yet malnutrition is rife because these women own only 2% of the land and access only 10% of the available extension services. To paraphrase what many women farmers have said to me, “We are the primary producers. But we receive very little for our hard work, because by the time our produce reaches the market, middlemen have taken the profit. But Africa would starve if we went on strike.”

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Any solution to hunger and malnutrition must place such women at its core. Recent development research is unambiguous: empowering women and raising their incomes results in better education, health, and nutrition for their children. We must make markets work for them and their families.

The summit’s appeal for global unity to combat malnutrition must target heads of state, finance and health ministers, as well as business and civil-society leaders. We have to make the food system work for all citizens, which requires stronger action from each of these actors.

In particular, governments must invest in nutrition through budgets, introduce mandatory fortification of staple foods, curb “junk food,” and improve quality control.

Similarly, civil-society organizations must build robust advocacy and education programs that work with local communities to change unhealthy eating habits, emphasize the critical importance of exclusive breast feeding in the first six months, and explain the link between lifestyle, diet, and exercise in preventing disease.

Finally, the business community should use its management expertise, marketing, technology, logistical capacity, and reach to improve the quality and affordability of nutritious foods on the market. Moreover, large companies should use their global supply chains to empower their workforces and women smallholder farmers.

Local, large-scale solutions are emerging. In Bangladesh, where the rate of malnutrition is among the highest in the world, an affordable vitamin and mineral supplement is now available that can be added to porridge and soup. A partnership between BRAC, the world’s largest development NGO, and the Bangladeshi pharmaceutical company Renata produces the supplement from locally available chickpeas and lentils; tens of thousands of health-care workers then distribute it.

Similarly, in India’s Rajasthan state, high-quality complementary foods produced by decentralized women’s self-help groups are improving the nutrition of children aged 6-36 months. In Ghana, a new instant maize-based product, enriched with vitamins and minerals, is the first of its kind on the market, owing to its affordability and natural integration with breastfeeding. As a result, the nutrition of more than one million children will be improved during their first 1,000 days of life.

We need greater innovation in finding solutions. We need partnerships that leverage the knowledge and solutions that come from local communities. While we recognize the commitment of the United Kingdom in promoting the new Scaling Up Nutrition movement, coordinated by the United Nations, we also know that who sits at the table to design solutions determines who eats at the table later. By investing now in nutrition and improved food security, by 2020 we can lift 50 million people out of poverty, prevent stunting in 20 million children under the age of five, and save 1.7 million lives.

Jay Naidoo is Chair of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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