27 countries are meeting today to try and stop Europe doing something about climate change

February 22, 2012

Getting Somalia Wrong and other background reading for today's big conference

February 22, 2012

What causes bad nutrition – not enough power or not enough vitamins?

February 22, 2012
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As a general rule, the further The Economist magazine’s subject matter departs from economics, the better it gets, as information and analysis replace the ideological drumbeat of its market fundamentalist ‘priors’. Thanks to its coverage, vital development issues such as gendercide or resource scarcity reach a global mass audience. This week’s issue has an excellent analysis of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood on the back of the Arab Spring, but the piece that caught my eye was a two page overview on poverty and nutrition, one of those issues that seems to be rising rapidly up the development agenda (see last week’s Save the Children report). Some highlights:

“In the 1960s and 1970s, ending hunger and malnutrition seemed relatively simple: you grew more crops. If the harvest failed, rich nutrition educationcountries sent food aid. But the Ethiopian famine of 1984 undermined this approach. Here was a disaster of biblical proportions in a country where food was available. It was a reminder of what an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, had long taught: what really matters with food is not the overall supply, but individual access.

So in the 1990s and early 2000s the emphasis switched to helping people obtain food. This meant reducing poverty and making agricultural markets more efficient. Between 1990 and 2005 the number of people living on less than $1 a day in poor countries (at 2005 purchasing-power parity) fell by a third to 879m, or from 24.9% of the total population to 18.6%.

Yet the food-price spike of 2007-08 showed that this approach also had limitations. Prices of many staple crops doubled in a year; millions went hungry. The world remains bad at fighting hunger. Experts argue about exactly how many people are affected, but the number has probably held flat at just below 1 billion since 1990.

Even where there is enough food, people do not seem healthier. On top of 1 billion without enough calories, another 1 billion are malnourished in the sense that they lack micro-nutrients (this is often called “hidden hunger”). And a further 1 billion are malnourished in the sense that they eat too much and are obese. It is a damning record: out of the world population of 7 billion, 3 billion eat too little, too unhealthily, or too much.

More than 160m children in developing countries suffer from a lack of vitamin A; 1m die because they have weak immune systems and 500,000 go blind each year. Iron deficiency causes anaemia, which affects almost half of poor-country children and over 500m women, killing more than 60,000 of them each year in pregnancy. Iodine deficiency—easily cured by adding the stuff to salt—causes 18m babies each year to be born with mental impairments.

Malnutrition is associated with over a third of children’s deaths and is the single most important risk factor in many diseases (see chart).malnutrition A third of all children in the world are underweight or stunted (too short for their age), the classic symptoms of malnourishment.

The damage malnutrition does in the first 1,000 days of life is also irreversible. According to research published in TheLancet, a medical journal, malnourished children are less likely (all things being equal) to go to school, less likely to stay there, and more likely to struggle academically. They earn less than their better-fed peers over their lifetimes, marry poorer spouses and die earlier.

Paradoxically, malnutrition can also cause obesity later in life. In the womb and during the first couple of years, the body adjusts to a poor diet by squirrelling away whatever it can as fat (an energy reserve). It never loses its acquired metabolism. This explains the astronomical obesity rates in countries that have switched from poor to middle-income status. In Mexico, for instance, obesity was almost unknown in 1980. Now 30% of Mexican adults are clinically obese and 70% are overweight.

These are among the highest rates in the world, almost as bad as in America. India has an obesity epidemic in cities, as people eat more processed food and adopt more sedentary lifestyles. And with obesity will come new diseases such as diabetes and heart disease—as if India did not have enough diseases to worry about.

Nutrition is also attracting attention because of some puzzling failures. In a few big countries, notably India and Egypt, malnutrition is much higher than either economic growth or improvements in farming would suggest it should be. India’s income per head grew more than fourfold between 1990 and 2010; yet the proportion of underweight children fell by only around a quarter. By contrast, Bangladesh is half as rich as India and its income per head rose only threefold during the same period; yet its share of underweight children dropped by a third and is now below India’s. Egypt’s agricultural value-added per person rose more than 20% in 1990-2007. Yet both malnutrition and obesity rose—an extremely unusual combination.

The good news is that better nutrition can be a stunningly good investment. Fixing micro-nutrient deficiencies is cheap. Vitamin supplements cost next to nothing and bring lifelong benefits. Every dollar spent promoting breastfeeding in hospitals yields returns of between $5-67. And every dollar spent giving pregnant women extra iron generates between $6-14. Nothing else in development policy has such high returns on investment.

If malnutrition does so much damage and the actions against it are cheap and effective, why is the affliction only now being taken seriously? Some countries have successfully tackled it. Brazil cut the number of underweight people by 0.7% a year between 1986 and 1996 and reduced stunting by 1.9% a year. Bangladesh reduced both rates by 2% a year in 1994-2005.

But in many countries the problem of “hidden hunger” is hidden from victims themselves, so there is no pressure for change. If everyone in a village is undernourished, poor nutrition becomes the norm and everyone accepts it. This may also explain the reluctance of poor, ill-fed people to spend extra money on food, preferring instead to buy such things as televisions or a fancy wedding. When asked about his spending choices, an ill-fed Moroccan farmer told Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Poverty Action Laboratory, a think-tank: “Oh, but television is more important than food.”

Education can help change attitudes by persuading people they would benefit from a better (if more expensive) diet. But people in rich countries consume vast quantities of junk food knowing full well that it is bad for them. It is unrealistic to expect consumers in poor countries to behave differently. Hence the idea of doing good by stealth.

HarvestPlus, a research group, breeds staple crops with extra nutrients and distributes the “bio-fortified” seeds. It released a vitamin A-rich cassava in Nigeria in 2011. This year it will bring vitamin A-rich maize (corn) to Zambia and iron-rich beans and pearl millet to biskuatRwanda and India. Companies do something similar with processed foods: Kraft’s Biskuat biscuits (sold in Indonesia) have nine vitamins and six minerals added.

But education or fortified foods alone will not overcome the most intractable barrier to better nutrition, which is the sheer complexity of the task. Some problems of development are relatively straightforward. You can improve education by building schools and paying teachers. Nutrition is not like that.

A successful effort to improve nutrition has to push all the buttons at once. Brazil’s Fome Zero has 90 separate programmes run by 19 ministries. It embraces everything from a conditional cash-transfer scheme, called Bolsa Família, to irrigation projects and help for smallholders. Such an effort is hard to organise and cannot work unless politicians support it.

Hence the importance of Mr Graziano, the FAO’s new boss. Interest in improving nutrition is growing; so is alarm at the failures of fighting malnutrition so far. He will not find it easy to cajole more countries into a large, broad-based effort. Governments are reluctant to change and want clear evidence. And just as the damage from malnutrition builds up over a lifetime, so better nutrition reveals its benefits only over many years, as well-fed mothers pass on good health to well-fed children.

At a recent FAO conference someone was heard to remark that “at the moment nutritionists are in a position similar to environmentalists in the 1990s.” That is depressing, because it means progress will be slow; but it is encouraging, because progress will come eventually.”

My immediate reaction to this analysis  is ‘where’s the politics?’ – it seems to discuss only apolitical problems (ignorance, bad policies) and proffer technical solutions. Politics, power and inequality help explain those ‘surprising’ failures in India and Egypt. But maybe poor nutrition really is at least partly soluble with technical fixes – iodine in salt, vitamin supplements etc. What do you think? Does helping the one billion people who are wrongly- (rather than under- or over-) nourished particularly lend itself to technical solutions?

5 comments

  1. My inclination is all solutions should be tried, but that is naive really as funding will prevent it.

    Re technology solutions, they seem to me to be split into the agricultural and the ‘medicinal’. The agricultural, fortified or enriched crops at least has the benefit of fitting perfectly into normal lifestyles.

    But with the vitamin/salt solutions, don’t they still have the issue of getting to the people who need them, and having them have the will and inclination to actually taken them? I sometimes need iron tabs and never take them. If as your article says people don’t know or really care, can we realistically expect those to work if a conscious choice is needed?

    Good luck!

  2. Where’s the politics? It’s not there because the political philosophy of The Economist – neolib globalisation – inevitably leads to inequality.

    Their idea is that these inequalities can be fixed with technology.

    They can’t of course as we are seeing around the world.

    Time for a piece on Karl Polanyi, Duncan?

  3. Fome zero seems very political to me. It is a radical redistribution scheme, with a need fro strong political engagement, otherwise it can degrade fast into a pork barrel feast.

    Moreover, a lot of the interventions rely on better education. As we all know, education, any education is empowering.

    The central issue on politics is the focus. If hunger is central, then you can intervene, and for each type of hunger, you have a different battery of options or mixtures to apply, but we are getting better at knowing them. Applying this battery of options is a political choice for the poorest. A choice that most politicians ill not make.

  4. This is a really interesting article. Political will and action combined with technical knowledge and resources are key. India’s impressive response to Polio is a good example of the power and significance of both. Ok so food is in some ways a lot more complex but the combination of knowledge and action has to enable further progress.

  5. I find it interesting that you quote Bannerjee and Duflo’s Moroccan farmer on why he prefers to buy a TV, and then go on to say “Some problems of development are relatively straightforward. You can improve education by building schools and paying teachers.” The point, as Duflo and Bannerjee have shown very clearly, is that building schools and paying teachers is not nearly as effective as de-worming children which, surprise surprise, improves their nutritional status. But which does nothing for teachers or the builders of schools.

    And the whole question of the sustainability of bio-fortified seeds, when the farmer cannot tell whether the seeds she saves for next year carry the high-nutrient traits, is also fraught with problems.

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