Rising food prices: time to put your money where your mouth is?

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There is no arguing that high food prices are taking a heavy toll on Latin America’s families, business and governments, fueling ripple effects on people’s budgets and the economy as a whole.

But behind the cold hard numbers of price increases, shrinking budgets and inflationary fears, the simple truth is high food prices can kill –or severely impair- people, especially kids from underprivileged environments.

As the price of food creeps up for the third time in five years it is difficult to see how Latin America will be spared from its damaging effects. And with the price of corn, a staple food for a large proportion of the poorest populations sharply on the rise, it begs the question “are countries investing where it counts the most to protect the vulnerable?”  The short answer is: “not enough.”

During the last crises, several countries scaled up response mechanisms such as school meals, cash transfers, labor market programs and easing trade barriers on food or grain imports. But few countries in the region have set in place systems to prevent the loss of human capital in children brought about by malnutrition due to sustained high food prices.

An ongoing regional study, currently in preparation, shows that a large proportion of countries within Latin America have not integrated essential nutrition actions into their crisis response plans.  For example, promoting breastfeeding, providing poor mothers and children with adapted nutritious food rations, supplementing children with low-cost micronutrient powders, treating moderately malnourished children and integrating zinc into the treatment for diarrhea.

Investing in the first 1,000 days of life is crucial

Good nutrition is especially crucial during the critical first 1,000 days of life:  that is from the moment a baby is conceived until he or she reaches their second birthday.  Well-nourished children have better developed bodies and brains, they stay in school longer and are likely to earn more as an adult.

In Latin America, the preoccupying nutritional problems are stunting, anemia and obesity.  Stunting (being too short for your age), because it reflects the long-term and permanent effects of food and care deprivation.  Anemia, because of the increased risk of a pregnant mother dying during delivery and the irreversible damage it does to the brains and bodies of affected children under two years of age. Obesity, because it leads to debilitating chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart conditions. All three of which can be linked the nourishment a child receives during their first 1,000 days of life.

Though regional levels have decreased, the prevalence of under nutrition amongst the poorest, least educated, and indigenous populations are often at similar levels, if not higher, than in poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.  PAHO estimates that 7.2 million children in Latin America affected by stunting and 22.5 million are anemic, more than 2/3 of whom are within the critical 6-24 months age bracket.

The irreversible consequences of high food prices

During hard times, poor families often replace high nutrient value foods with lower quality alternatives, reduce the quantity they consume and cut down on the use of preventive health services. Studies have shown that when mothers are exposed to high food prices, their infants are progressively stunted. During the 2007-8 food crisis in El Salvador, stunting levels increased in children, even among those who were covered by the conditional cash transfer programs. The rise in anemia and over nutrition in the region over recent years can be linked to switching from nutritious foods to cheaper sources of calories such as refined sugars and fats.

As a result, more and more children in the region are at risk of becoming short, anemic and overweight. Three out of the four countries worldwide with the highest percentage of overweight mothers and malnourished children living in the same household are in Latin America: Guatemala, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.

Economic growth alone is not enough to protect against malnutrition

While in some countries the reduction in stunting is much less than expected, given their economic growth rate, -- most notably Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Bolivia and Honduras -- others such as Brazil, Dominican Republic, El Salvador Mexico and Peru, have shown successful progress.  Some of which can be attributed to the pro-poor strategies they have implemented specifically focusing on improving nutrition in the first 1,000 days in life.

Source: Messier, MC. Will the MDG for nutrition be achieved in Latin America and the Caribbean? World Bank, June 2012

The investments that will bring long lasting results

Soon, decision makers will have to make tough decisions on where to invest limited resources to best fight the effects of high food prices on the population.  If, in the long run, they want to get the biggest bang for their buck they should seriously consider first protecting mothers and young children from malnutrition.

In order to achieve this, a balanced strategy of income growth and investment in more direct interventions into health and nutrition are needed.  These will require collaboration between the health, social protection, agriculture and education sectors, as well as others.

This will then ensure mothers and children have easy access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious foods, vitamins and minerals as well as access to health and nutrition services.

By doing so, this will not only give the next generation a strong base for a bright profitable future,  but also contributes to faster economic growth.  It’s a win-win situation.


Marie Chantal Messier

World Bank Senior Nutrition Specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean

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