(HN, October 16, 2010) When we read in the media about world hunger, it must be understood that the issue is not simply one of food security. Hunger is about more than empty stomachs. It includes a lack of essential minerals and vitamins that thwarts brain and physical development, stunts growth, lowers physical immunity and starves muscles.
The diets of more than two billion people are deficient in essential nutrients.
With World Food Day upon us, the issue of undernutrition is gaining momentum and attention.
Undernutrition is a contributing factor to more than half the deaths of children under five in developing countries. The statistics are staggering:
- One quarter of child deaths from measles, diarrhoeal dehydration and malaria are attributable to inadequate vitamin A or zinc.
- Every year some 18 million babies are born mentally impaired because their mothers were deficient in iodine during pregnancy.
- Iron-deficiency anaemia, the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world, is undermining global productivity to the tune of billions of dollars by compromising both physical and intellectual capacity.
Thus beyond the provision of food, ensuring adequate nutrition is inexpensive and cost-effective and must play a central role in development plans and budgets if we have any hope of approaching our goals. It must have a prominent place in food security initiatives, within health sector activity and among social programmes. The private sector can also play a role.
We have models to successfully address hidden hunger, but the political will and financing do not yet match the potential. The latest Copenhagen Consensus – a panel of eight of the world’s most distinguished economists – determined that investments in micronutrient nutrition provided the very best return on investment in global development. An annual investment of US$1.2 billion over five years would result in annual benefits of US$15.3 billion, representing better health, fewer deaths and increased future earnings.
One of the greatest success stories in nutrition has been that of salt iodization, demonstrating how well government commitment, market opportunity and social responsibility can be combined to deliver essential nutrients to billions of people on a regular and consistent basis.
Iodine is so critical for human intelligence that improving daily dietary intake through the iodization of salt not only prevents millions of cases of preventable intellectual disability annually but increases population-wide IQ levels by as many as 13 points. Such nutritional power can fuel not only personal growth but also educational outcomes and, ultimately, economic success.
In 1990, less than 20 per cent of households in the developing world were consuming iodized salt. A worldwide push by UNICEF, Kiwanis International, the Micronutrient Initiative, salt producers and governments changed all of that. Canada was one of the leaders in funding this push and remains one of the largest contributors to the effort for Universal Salt Iodization.
Today, in 70 per cent of households, the daily pinch of salt is iodized. As a result, the number of countries in which iodine deficiency disorders are a public health concern has been reduced by more than half.
This success was due to the mobilization of many players from a broad range of backgrounds. We need to build on this to address the broader issue of nutrition security – a call to action to provide adequate nutrition to those who are most vulnerable. Together with more than 100 agencies, Canada’s Micronutrient Initiative has helped deliver the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) Road Map. The Road Map encourages a better focus on nutrition within development programs, good research and monitoring into what works in nutrition and what needs to be improved, and long-term commitments from governments, both those that provide funding to programs and those that implement them.
As world leaders set their sights on the 2015 target date for the Millennium Development Goals, let’s remember that we must do more than fill hungry stomachs.
We have an opportunity and an obligation to nourish progress. We need a concentrated effort to ensure that the world's most vulnerable have access to nutritious food and to the vitamins and minerals they need to survive and have access to increased opportunities and a better future. The time to invest is now.
- Venkatesh Mannar is President of the Micronutrient Initiative