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August 28, 2017

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Improving nutrition of world’s poor children

Malnutrition receives less attention than most of the world’s other major challenges. Yet it is one area where a relatively small investment can have the most powerful impact.

An estimated 2 billion people do not receive the essential vitamins and minerals they need to grow and thrive — notably, iron, iodine, vitamin A and zinc. Worse, malnutrition and undernutrition are part of a cruel cycle, in that they are both causes and effects of poverty.

This cycle disproportionately affects infants and young children, who suffer devastating consequences from malnutrition, including mental impairment and difficulty learning in school.

For more than a decade, my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, has studied and compared development options for governments and donor organizations operating at a global, regional and national level. We work with the world’s top specialist economists, including Nobel laureates, to determine the best ways to fight humanity’s biggest challenges.

Investments designed to fight “hidden hunger” or micro-nutrient deficiencies have consistently ranked near the top of our priority lists. The evidence clearly shows that breaking inter-generational cycles of poverty and under-nutrition is one of the most powerful ways to improve lives anywhere on the planet.

Our 2012 study demonstrated that an investment of just US$100 per child could pay for a bundle of interventions that would reduce chronic under-nutrition in developing countries by 36 percent. In other words, each dollar spent reducing chronic under-nutrition would create returns to society worth US$30.

Tangible impact

The 2012 study had a tangible impact. The following year, a coalition of non-governmental organizations pledged more than US$750 million for nutrition programs, based partly on our findings.

Similarly, former British Prime Minister David Cameron cited the same research at a 2013 meeting on “Nutrition for Growth,” when G8 governments committed to spending US$4.15 billion more on the fight against malnutrition.

What’s true at a global level is also true for many countries. The two most recent Copenhagen Consensus projects focused on Bangladesh and Haiti.

In Bangladesh, 30,000 children die every year due to malnourishment. We called for more investments in targeted interventions that reach children in their first 1,000 days. Our research factored into Bangladesh’s Second National Plan of Action for Nutrition.

In Haiti, the government, with support from USAID, has just launched the country’s first food-fortification project.

Fortification helps many people at once, because it involves adding nutrients to foods that are widely consumed.

It is just one weapon in the fight against malnutrition — the arsenal also includes education and targeted initiatives such as providing supplements to mothers and newborns — but a very important one.

Fortification isn’t a new idea. Most people living in rich countries benefit from it whether they realize it or not.

In the early 20th century, salt iodization began in Switzerland and has since been implemented across the world. Vitamin A-fortified margarine was first introduced in Denmark in 1918. And in the 1930s, vitamin A-fortified milk and flour enriched with iron and B vitamins were introduced in a number of developed countries.

At this point, fortification is almost universal in the developed world, yet it is still absent in many low- and middle-income countries.

Haiti’s fortification project will focus on enriching wheat flour with iron and folic acid, vegetable oils with vitamin A, and salt with iodine.

A research paper by Stephen Vosti of the University of California, Davis, and colleagues shows that 95 percent of Haiti’s wheat flour could be fortified for a decade with an investment of just US$5.1 million in premixed micro-nutrients, equipment and training.

This relatively small investment would deliver extraordinary benefits, not least by preventing 140 neural-tube-defect deaths and more than 250,000 cases of anemia every year.

In monetary terms, each dollar spent would accrue benefits to Haitian society worth US$24. There is no panacea for all of today’s development challenges. But policies to improve nutrition come closer than most.

Bjørn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.


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