If you had $75 billion to spend on solving some of the world’s greatest challenges where would you start? A panel of leading economists called the Copenhagen Consensus recently answered that very question. After extensive research and consultation, they determined that the single best investment the world could make to advance health and prosperity was to fight malnutrition in young children.
Though we have always known that tackling child malnutrition is the right thing to do, we also know now that it is also the smartest thing to do.
Thankfully, we already know what it takes to prevent the needless suffering of almost 200 million children who are chronically malnourished and the almost three million preventable child deaths that result from malnutrition. Evidence shows that the right nutrition early in a child’s life—particularly during the 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday—can help break the cycle of poverty by ensuring healthy brain development, stronger immune systems, better performance in school, and higher earning potential.
As a prelude to the upcoming G8 summit at Camp David, discussions on how improving early nutrition can accelerate progress on hunger and poverty will take center stage at a high level briefing on May 18 on Capitol Hill. Called “Scaling Up Nutrition: Calling All Champions,” the event will bring together leaders to call upon the G8 to prioritize action on child malnutrition as part of their development and food security discussions at the G8 summit.
A particular focus will be the progress made by developing countries to tackle the issue of child malnutrition. Through the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) movement, twenty-seven countries have committed to achieving measurable progress on improving nutrition and are investing their own resources to reduce chronic malnutrition in their population. With some of the highest levels of malnutrition in the world, these twenty-seven countries have acknowledged that a poorly nourished population is a serious impediment to their economic growth and future prosperity. Research has shown that improving early nutrition can increase a country’s GDP by at least two to three percent annually. For the global donor community, each dollar spent in reducing chronic malnutrition has as much as a $138 payoff in terms of gains in productivity and health savings.
For these twenty-seven countries and many others, efforts to increase food security and catalyze greater investments in agriculture are vitally important to addressing malnutrition.
In a landmark Chicago Council on Global Affairs report last year, the authors wisely noted that “there is no health without nutrition, and nutrition depends, in part, on agriculture.” Yet until recently, agriculture had not been traditionally deployed as a tool for health and nutrition. Agriculture is both a source of food and a source of income—and both are essential to ensuring better nutrition security.
Improving food security means improving both the quantity and nutritional quality and balance of food. It also means improving how affordable food is for everyone, but especially for women and children who live in poverty.
The poor often have no choice but to reduce their overall food consumption or substitute less expensive and less nutritious foods in response to higher prices. For people living close to subsistence and already consuming the cheapest sources of calories (typically, starches and less nutritious food), substitution options are extremely limited.
Because nutrition during the 1,000 day period between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday sets the foundation for lifelong health and intellectual potential, even temporary increases in food prices can affect children’s long-term physical and cognitive development. Aside from the developmental impact that food insecurity can have on future generations, one of the most dramatic effects of the food price crisis is an increase in infant mortality, especially in low-income countries, as the World Bank recently pointed out.
This is where investments in food security and agriculture can truly be life-saving investments. Promoting greater food security can transform the face of hunger and poverty, and we should remember that often times, the face we are looking at is the face of a young child.
Lucy Martinez Sullivan is the Executive Director of 1,000 Days. Prior to joining 1,000 Days, Lucy led strategic and fundraising planning for various non-profit and philanthropic institutions, and led successful business initiatives for several Fortune 500 companies.