The Fight for Food

GENEVA – Every year, 3.5 million mothers and children below the age of five die in poor countries because they do not have the nutrition they need to fight common diseases. Three-quarters of them could have survived diarrhea or malaria if they had been properly nourished.

For those who do survive, the future looks grim: all studies show that children who are undernourished in the first two years of life suffer health problems and lag in development for the rest of their lives. Insufficient nourishment impedes their capacity to learn, fitness to work, and ability to develop their talents. Besides the human suffering, the economic costs of malnutrition are huge: according to the World Bank, countries where malnutrition is most prevalent lose, on average, between 2% and 3% of their GDP.

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The issue is not severe and acute malnutrition, which hits populations suddenly, usually as a result of conflict. The question is how we attract the attention of the European Union and the G8 countries to the malnutrition that experts call “hidden hunger,” which affects one in every three people worldwide. It is caused by imbalanced nutrition or a lack of vitamins and essential minerals that enable the human body to grow and that maintain its vital functions.

For example, recent data show that even a moderate deficiency of Vitamin A results in higher mortality. In fact, we could avoid the death of at least one million children every year by improving their intake of it.

Doing so would not be difficult. Humans have added essential vitamins or minerals to their foods since time immemorial; indeed, since the beginning of the twentieth century, food fortification has been a major government policy in developed countries to reduce nutritional deficiencies and improve public health. All scientific studies of such interventions prove that fortification of basic foodstuffs works.

Chile promoted the addition of iron to milk, resulting in a 66% reduction of anemia amongst babies. The fortification of maize meal with folic acid in South Africa – one of the projects supported by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) – was followed by a 40% reduction in spina bifida, a serious deformation of the neural tube in new-born babies.

Moreover, these essential interventions cost little and deliver a lot: to enrich cooking oil with Vitamin A costs less than $0.10 per liter, and fortification in general has a benefit-to-cost ratio of at least eight to one.

What is missing is the willingness to act. At GAIN, we are convinced that there is an urgent need to fight malnutrition if the world wants to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which commit the world to halving global poverty and hunger by 2015. Fighting malnutrition is the first step toward reaching this objective. Science has demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of food fortification, and the technologies and know-how are available in the private sector, which has the capacity to innovate and deliver products to the poorest.

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Europe and the G8 must act. Not only do they need to make the fight against malnutrition a policy priority; they also must invest. The equation is straightforward: €160 million for fortification programs could improve the health of one billion people. To put that amount into perspective, the regular move of EU institutions between Brussels and Strasbourg costs €200 million per year.

While the latter is an understandable expense historically, the time has come for the EU and G8 to make different political choices that help keep 3.5 million mothers and children alive and well.