Malnutrition has a Global Cost: $3.5 Trillion a Year

Malnourished child in Somalia
DRC: Serge Laba, the senior paediatric nurse in Masi Manimba hospital, checks the weight of a malnourished child.

DRC: Serge Laba, the senior paediatric nurse in Masi Manimba hospital, checks the weight of a malnourished child.

As if there was any doubt that malnutrition was a bad thing, it now comes with a hefty price tag of $3.5 trillion lost globally every year.

That’s roughly the same size as the annual GDP of Germany. Put another way, it averages out to a loss of about $500 for every one of us on the planet every year. And it’s completely avoidable.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its annual report on the state of food and agriculture around the world. Malnutrition, ranging from obesity to a lack of vitamins, is a global problem with real costs. The report estimates that 2 billion people are micronutrient deficient and 1.4 billion are obese. However, the solutions are not just at the point where food is consumed.

Most countries see both extremes of malnutrition. Malnutrition is a cause for increasing healthcare costs and also for a loss of work. Sick people can’t work or don’t work at their best. That too bears an economic cost.

“The social and economic costs of malnutrition are unconscionably high,” says FAO Director-General Jose Graziano de Silva in the the report’s introduction. “The challenge for the global community, therefore, is to continue fighting hunger and undernutrition while preventing or reversing the emergence of obesity.”

Mothers and children are at the frontline of the malnutrition epidemic, bearing the largest burden. The reports points to promising progress over the past two decades on maternal and child malnutrition at a time that obesity increased, but more must be done. Maternal malnutrition impacts not only the mother herself, putting her in greater risk of complications during birth, but also the child she carries. Nutrition is vital in the first 1000 days from conception for both mother and child. Malnutrition during that period can lead to long lasting problems such as delayed cognitive development or the slowing of physical growth in children (stunting).

Increasing food production and ensuring lower prices are all important, says the report, but it must be done alongside public health interventions and increased food education. Improving food production at all levels can address the problems connected to both over and under consumption. A commonality across all types of malnutrition is ‘the appropriateness of the diets consumed,’ says the report. Food systems, at their core, determine what people eat.

“The way we grow, raise, process, transport and distribute food influences what we eat,” says the report’s authors.

A planet of diverse food systems means that there is not a single solution to the problem. The report also recommends tackling food waste, which accounts for an estimated one-third of food produced for human consumption each year. Education is an important component in order to ensure that individuals make good dietary choices.

“You can process food properly, you can produce it properly, you can have the possibility to supply diverse diets,” said FAO’s Kostas Stamoulis to VOA. “But if they are not consumed, the impact that we expect will be low.”

The issue of hunger will be one of the key topics at the upcoming G8 summit in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. British NGOs began their press on global leaders with the launch of the ‘Enough Food If‘ campaign at the beginning of the year. The 100 NGOs rallied around the issues of tax havens, land grabs, transparency and climate change in advance of the summit that kicks off on June 17th.

Like the FAO, the Enough Food If campaign says that there is enough food to address hunger, but there are a series of barriers that stand in the way of food reaching people. While the FAO focused on the technical and behavioral problems, Enough Food If argues that corruption and a lack of information stand in the way of improving global food systems. The campaign summed up its case in its January report:

“If we act to ensure small-scale farmers –women and men – can keep hold of their land to grow food; if we crack down on tax dodgers depriving poor countries of resources to ensure the right to food; if we work for global agreement on new sources of climate finance; if all of this is underpinned by transparency, rule of law and strong institutions; and if we fulfil our existing commitments of aid to developing countries and invest enough of this in agriculture and nutrition – then the world has a chance to end the scandal of hunger.”

The loudest call has been for the elimination of tax havens. It appears to be working as David Cameron announced his intention to meet with senior ministers from Bermuda, Jersey and the British Virgin Islands in advance of the G8 summit to sign agreements to share tax information. A step that will help root out tax evaders with accounts in the territories.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.