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Developing countries urgently need nutritional interventions to safeguard vulnerable people during economic crises, writes Suresh Babu.

Food insecurity receives much attention from researchers and donors. But the lack of nutrition security — access to balanced nourishment — is much less visible and equally devastating to the health and economic development of poor populations. 

The effects of malnourishment are stark. A lack of protein exponentially increases children's risk of death, while vitamin A and iron deficiencies are also associated with higher infant and child mortality. Early life and childhood malnutrition leads to stunting and anaemia, which not only causes low birth-weight in the next generation but also harms cognitive development.

Sufficient nutrition in the womb and before the age of two is critical for mental capability because cognitive losses can be irreversible by the time children reach school. They then have poorer academic performance and lower productivity in adulthood.

Numbers are rising

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the economic crisis has pushed the number of undernourished people up by 105 million to more than one billion — about one sixth of the global population.

The poorest populations have been hardest hit. The Global Hunger Index identifies eight countries — Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Haiti, Liberia and Zambia — as highly vulnerable to the economic crisis, having 'alarming' or 'extremely alarming' status.

The crisis is particularly damaging because it comes on the heels of global food and fuel crises that have already exhausted the capacity of developing countries to cope with price shocks. As these countries are now more financially integrated into the world economy they cannot easily escape the impacts of global recession.

Priced out of healthy eating

Economic crises increase malnutrition in several ways, from fewer employment opportunities and lower earnings to more volatile commodity prices and restricted access to food.

It is true that the economic downturn has reduced food prices but they are still higher than four years ago — it is increasingly expensive to eat a balanced diet. In Guatemala, for example, a diet based on corn tortillas, vegetable oil, vegetables and beans is twice as expensive as a less nutritious one based on just tortillas and vegetable oil.

Poor populations cope with higher food prices by shifting to less balanced diets, forgoing healthcare or education, selling assets, or eating less — and malnutrition increases.

In Bangladesh, for example, a 50 per cent rise in food prices has been estimated to increase the prevalence of iron deficiency among women and children by 25 per cent.

The economic crisis is also likely to reduce agricultural investment and productivity as banks cut lending to small farmers. And lower agricultural productivity will compound the increasing reliance on food imports seen across the developing world over the past three decades.

For example, Eritrea, a country with very low daily calorie intake, imports 87 per cent of its grain and all of its sugar — and barely covers a quarter of its import costs through export earnings.

For countries like Eritrea, any decline in import capacity — through higher food or fuel prices, lower donor funding, reduced demand for exports or limited foreign exchange availability — could be devastating to nutrition security.

Interventions are effective

Developing countries desperately need nutritional interventions and social protection policies to guide them through the current economic crisis, ensure nutrition security and safeguard vulnerable populations. 

Interventions include school meals and distributing food supplements, while protection policies range from conditional cash transfers to rural employment programmes.

Long-term efforts to boost agricultural productivity through, for example, fertiliser subsidies or agricultural research and development — particularly on bio-fortified food crops or 'climate-proof' crops — could also help lower the burden of malnutrition in the developing world.

Some countries are already learning to cope. In 2005, drought and nitrogen deficiency in crops left five million Malawians reliant on food aid. By October of that year, the government started an agricultural subsidy programme to give poor farmers discounted fertiliser and improved maize seeds. Within just one year, maize production had more than doubled, exceeding national food needs. And after two years Malawi became a food donor to neighbouring countries.

In Ethiopia, free distribution of food aid and food-for-work programmes are maintaining nutrition during drought. Studies reveal that both programmes have improved child nutrition indicators.

In Mexico, a conditional cash transfer programme provides poor households with money for food if they regularly attend school and visit a health clinic. A supplementary energy payment has also helped ease the pressure on access to fuel.

These are some examples that have already proved to protect vulnerable populations in times of crisis. But many constraints remain on achieving food and nutrition security. Unless immediate action is taken, reaching the Millennium Development Goal of reducing the number of undernourished people to no more than 420 million by 2015 will be impossible.

Suresh Babu is a program leader and a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington DC, United States.