Q&A: The human and economic cost of malnutrition
World Food Day "People suffering from malnutrition are compromised on a health level and an economic level," says the Executive Director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.
How are different countries affected by malnutrition?
"There are various forms of malnutrition. For example, there are children in the world who are not eating enough, living in unhealthy environments and not growing properly as a result. Others are not getting the right vitamins and minerals and ending up with conditions such as anaemia and goitre. Then there's the obesity and diabetes epidemic. If we combine all three, it's estimated that one in three people on the planet are malnourished, perhaps even one in two. Obviously, Africa and south Asian countries have bigger problems with undernutrition, whereas Europe and North America have too much of the wrong food. Half the countries in the world are dealing with both problems at the same time, which we call the 'double burden'."
Why is malnutrition a particular issue for women and children?
"Women and children are most vulnerable because they need more nutrients per kilogram of their body weight; yet they tend to have the least say in decision-making in their household and community. The period from conception to the first two years of life (1000 days window) is when the immune system, brain and central nervous system are developed. So if the foetus and baby are not getting enough nutrients, they can’t develop properly."
photo credit: GAIN
What are the economic consequences of malnutrition?
"Many studies show that, at the economy-wide level, around three to 10 per cent of GDP is lost because of the burden of malnutrition. At an individual level, studies show that people who are undernourished don’t achieve as much at school, don’t get as good a job as a result and are estimated to earn a third less than their nourished counterparts."
How do food systems need to change to help solve malnutrition?
"I'm encouraged that people are waking up to the importance of food systems. Previously, the talk was all about agriculture. Now it's understood that processing, storage, distribution and retailing — the action that takes place between what’s grown and what’s eaten — is vital too.
"The food system is only meeting the needs of—at best--two-thirds of the global population, and that’s not good enough. But it’s not surprising because businesses are set up to maximise profit, not nutritional outcomes. That isn’t a criticism because in generating profits businesses also generate jobs and taxes. But quite frequently they're also producing foods which are too empty in nutrition; so governments need to set rules of the game that promote nutrition, with a system of sticks and carrots. Sticks might be fines for code violations or taxes on unhealthy food. Carrots could be lower taxes — or subsidies — for businesses that promote the production, processing and distribution of foods that are part of a healthy diet, such as fruit and vegetables, pulses and nuts."