Published on Let's Talk Development

Why nutrition matters

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ImageThree years from the deadline for reaching the Millennium Development Goals, two-thirds of countries will not reach MDGs 4 and 5 (child and maternal mortality, respectively). And now the second food price rise in three years is a wake-up call for the development community.

In this context, the Global Monitoring Report 2012: Food Prices, Nutrition, and the Millennium Development Goals examines some of the possible consequences of food price increases, such as a rise in poverty and undernourishment1. Households cope through a variety of mechanisms, including: eating less nutritious diets and then less food; making more household members work (women and children); and not seeking health care when ill. The most vulnerable (the poor, children, and pregnant women) bear the brunt of these adverse impacts.   Moreover, as countries seek to maintain food prices, some increase food price subsidies and cut into other services.

Temporary shocks such as the high food prices are no small matter.  Child under-nutrition2 is linked to one-third of children’s deaths, and will hamper progress towards most of the MDGs. Early life conditions (from conception to 2 years of age) disproportionately influence growth, cognitive skills, health status, and social functioning, negatively impacting human capital and costing countries up to 3 percent of their GDP. Vicious circles between stunting, disease, and low school attainment set children on irreversible lower development paths for life.
Some interventions can build household and individual resilience and mitigate long-term effects. In the short-run, interventions should focus on maintaining household purchasing power through cash, food, and/or nutrient transfers. Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) interventions have proven high returns, through improved infant and young child feeding and caring practices. In the longer-term, interventions should also focus on strengthening the link between smallholder agriculture and nutrition, addressing seasonal shortages, and decreasing post-harvest losses.  

To mitigate the potentially negative impacts of food prices, countries  should focus on delivering SUN interventions to the most vulnerable groups (pregnant women and young children), while tailoring them to  their specific capacity and context.  Working through other sector (health, social protection, agriculture), improving the information base and rallying multi-stakeholder coalitions around nutrition will not only save lives and  help achieve national nutrition security, but also contribute to stability and growth. Will anybody answer the wake-up call?

1 Undernourishment refers to the proportion of the population who consume less energy than a country-specific threshold

2 Malnutrition includes under- and over-nutrition. Undernutrition, from insufficient amount and quality of food intake and infections may cause one to be underweight for one’s age, too short for one’s age (stunting, a measure of chronic malnutrition), too thin for one’s height (wasting, a measure of acute malnutrition) or cause micronutrient (vitamins, iron,iodine, zinc) deficiencies.  Overnutrition causes overweight and obesity


Bénédicte de la Brière

Senior Economist, Human Development Network, World Bank

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