Investment by companies in efforts to eliminate malnutrition makes good business sense
The economic cost of malnutrition is high — in some countries as much as 16 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Worldwide, 144 million children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition. The disease develops during the first three years of life if a child does not have access to a balanced diet.
The societal consequences of this disease are dramatic. At school, malnourished children have learning difficulties. When they become adults, they are less productive and cost health systems more.
The measures taken to fight the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have plunged the global economy into an unprecedented recession. The most vulnerable regions have not been spared. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where one in three children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished, economic activity is expected to contract by between 2.7 percent and 2.8 percent of the GDP.
As governments around the world put in place measures designed to foster a rapid resumption of economic growth, it would be appropriate also to encourage investment in the nutrition sector to help accelerate that growth. Indeed, it is a very profitable strategy: For every dollar invested in the sector, $15 is returned to the local economy.
Businesses can mobilize through Unitlife, a UN initiative to tackle chronic malnutrition. It does this by funding nutritious food systems and investing in the empowerment of women and climate-smart agriculture.
Unitlife offers companies innovative financing mechanisms that allow them to make a lasting commitment to the prevention of chronic malnutrition by integrating micro-contributions into their operations.
With transactions amounting to $17 billion this year, e-commerce in the Middle East alone could provide more than 300,000 children with access to healthy food in a sustainable way — simply by donating only 0.1 percent of the value of those transactions. Estimates suggest that the annual value of transactions in the sector will exceed $27 billion by 2025. These are significant resources that could be mobilized to preserve human capital for future generations.
Investing in nutrition is even more urgent now, given the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to countries’ health systems and the global economy.
Businesses also have a key role to play in creating food systems that facilitate good nutrition. Solutions already exist, including food fortification (which involves adding nutrients at levels higher than those found naturally in foods), and biofortification (increasing the micronutrient content in subsistence crops on which the populations most affected by chronic malnutrition rely). These sustainable and targeted methods, which are driven by the ingenuity of the private sector, help improve the nutritional value of foods.
More broadly, partnerships with small farmers should be strengthened, with the aim of promoting diversity in production and highly nutritious seeds, including local varieties adapted to specific climates. This would help ensure food and nutritional security for vulnerable populations.
Finally, emphasis should also be placed on innovations along the food value chain — particularly in crop storage, food processing and preservation — so that food retains its nutritional value until the moment it is consumed.
Investing in nutrition is even more urgent now, given the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to countries’ health systems and the global economy. This has exacerbated the malnutrition crisis, jeopardizing the ability of a generation of children to reach its full potential.
Indeed, restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic have caused loss of income and disruption in food value chains, making nutrient-rich foods less accessible and less affordable for millions of families.
We know that a healthy meal costs more than $1.90, which is an amount above what is affordable to people living below the generally accepted poverty line. This means that those in extreme poverty cannot afford to eat healthily. The pandemic is expected to cause at least an additional 83 million people to starve. In total, nearly 3 billion people on the planet will no longer have access to healthy, nutritious and sufficiently diverse food.
For companies, therefore, the status quo is no longer an option because the future of our societies is at stake. The support of businesses would make it possible to prevent chronic malnutrition on a long-term basis.
- Philippe Douste-Blazy is a French politician, diplomat and former minister, the founder of the NGO Unitaid. In 2019, he was elected chairman of the board of directors of the UN fund Unitlife.