Malnutrition impacts productivity and economic growth, time now to invest in better nutrition


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Every year, governments spend trillions of dollars in health-care costs and lost economic productivity due to malnutrition in all its forms.

By Sophie Tadria

Every year, governments spend trillions of dollars in health-care costs and lost economic productivity due to malnutrition in all its forms.

Malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients or impaired nutrient utilization.

The double burden of malnutrition consists of both undernutrition and overweight and obesity, as well as diet-related Non-Communicable Diseases. Undernutrition manifests in four broad forms: wasting, stunting, underweight, and micronutrient deficiencies.

Malnutrition imposes unacceptably high social and economic costs on individuals, particularly young children, adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women, the elderly, the sick and immuno-compromised, as well as on families and societies.

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Members of the Tanzania Girl Guides Association in Dar es Salaam watch animation cartoons on nutrition sensitive farming during the Watoto Wetu Programme event held recently in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | FAO Tanzania.

It has a significant impact on productivity and economic growth, limits human potential, has a negative impact on human physical and cognitive development, compromises immunity and increases susceptibility to disease.

Malnutrition is expected to rise as a result of the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine, which is disrupting supply chains and raising grain, fertilizer, and energy prices.

According to the recently released 2022 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, the number of people worldwide who cannot afford a healthy diet increased by 112 million to nearly 3.1 billion, reflecting the effects of rising consumer food prices on the affordability of healthy diets.

With only eight years to meet the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG2), “end hunger, achieve food insecurity and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, “now is the time for urgent, bold and coordinated efforts to catalyze progress toward global and national nutrition targets, save lives, help millions of our children develop fully and thrive, and deliver greater economic prosperity.

Calculating return on investments

Investing in better nutrition has one of the highest returns on investment in terms of human development and prosperity. FAO Tanzania, for example, calculated that a US$1.2 billion annual investment in improving global micronutrient supply would result in "better health, fewer deaths, and increased future earnings" of up to US$15.3 billion per year: a 13-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio.

Investing in better nutrition has the potential to stimulate economic growth, improve human wellbeing and equity, support environmental sustainability and strengthen family and societal resilience.

While the costs of dealing with the consequences of malnutrition are high, whether in fiscal, economic, or human terms, the cost of prevention is significantly lower.

Malnutrition prevention would result in healthier individuals and communities, lower intergenerational malnutrition risk, and more prosperous societies.

This implies an increase in the supply of the nutritious foods that make up a healthy diet, as well as a shift in consumption in their direction. It is clear that to promote more balanced and diverse dietary patterns, we must not only provide more food, but also more nutritious and affordable food items such as animal-sourced foods, legumes, and certain vegetables and fruits.

Our food production and supply chains must ensure year-round access to a diverse range of nutrient-rich foods that are both safe and culturally acceptable, and that can be made available in a sustainable manner as part of a healthy and balanced diet.

Better nutrition can also be attributed to investments in health, education, water, and sanitation, marketing infrastructure, legislating for micronutrient fortification of certain staple foods, and establishing effective social protection systems to allow for food consumption stability among vulnerable groups during times of food price stress.

Investing in nutrition has significant and lasting social and economic benefits. People who are healthy, well-nourished, and productive earn more money, pay more taxes, and contribute more resources to essential services like quality education and improved healthcare.

Let us all work together to increase our investments in nutrition.

*First Project Policy Officer, FAO Tanzania