This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country holds this year’s G8 presidency, hosted a Nutrition for Growth summit in London on Saturday. 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 percent 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 US 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 US dollar invested yielding a return of between US$15 and US$138. 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 percent.
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 as a whole. The alternative is stunting, which currently afflicts an astronomical 165 million children. 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 healthcare costs later in life.
However, in India, a 2011 study of 112 rural districts across the country found that “less than 20 percent 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 percent of the land and access only 10 percent 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.”
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.