We often talk of people as our country’s greatest asset. But if that asset is unhealthy, uneducated, and malnourished, we won’t be seeing the benefits.
One of the most critical developmental challenges facing the country is a topic that doesn’t receive as much attention, discussion, and creative thinking as it deserves: malnutrition. This basically refers to not receiving enough food, nutrients, vitamins, and minerals in one’s diet. It has profound effects on a person in terms of poor health, low cognition, and low productivity. It also has long-term effects on society and the economy in terms of lower GDP, higher health care costs, and lower returns on investment in education.
Malnutrition works in a cycle that repeats itself, unless intervention is made to break this cycle at certain points to improve nutrition for people. For instance, babies born with low birth weight (typically from malnourished mothers who exhibit low weight gain during pregnancy) have higher infant mortality rates than regular weight babies, impaired mental development, and inadequate growth. Without some nutritional intervention, they could grow to become stunted children and adolescents with reduced mental capacity. They then could grow into malnourished adults—who may repeat the cycle by giving birth to low birth weight babies—and elderly malnourished who themselves need care and are unable to help in the household.
The problem is more widespread in the country than what most of us might expect. Among children aged five and younger, 30.3 percent are stunted (e.g. have low height for their age), 19.1 percent are underweight, and 5.6 percent are wasted (e.g. have low weight for their height). Incredibly, 40 percent are obese.
Among children aged 6-10 years, 24.5 percent are stunted, 25 percent are underweight, 7.6 percent are wasted, and 11.7 percent are obese. Among adolescents aged 10-19 years, 26.3 percent are stunted, 11.3 percent are wasted, and 11.6 percent are obese. There is no data available for the underweight. Among adults over 20 years of age, 8 percent are wasted. More disturbing is that 20.1 percent of pregnant women are wasted and nutritionally at risk, and 11 percent of nursing mothers are wasted. Both factors contribute to the cycle of low birth weight babies mentioned above.
There are many causes of malnutrition, all of them somehow interrelated. There is, of course, a lack of access to affordable and nutritious food, as well as poor health care for mothers and children. There is also insufficient access to sanitation and clean water. Lack of access to water is a whole other problem in itself, which has an impact on health, disease, and long-term economic productivity, aside from its effects on malnutrition. At its core, the root causes of malnutrition also lie in poverty, environmental degradation, and public services and policy.
On a societal scale, the malnutrition cycle leads to low attendance in school and low cognitive capacity. This, in turn, leads to difficulty in learning and low school performance, which leads to lower skills, lower work output and low productivity, and low income. This brings people to a state of poverty and low nutritious food consumption, completing the cycle and reinforcing the malnutrition trend. Whatever we spend on education, the returns on investment that we’d like to expect will not materialize if the malnutrition cycle continues.
The situation is difficult, but not hopeless. According to the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction, $1 spent to avert stunting among children two years old and younger saves $103 in health, education, and lost productivity over the long-term. There are government agencies, international organizations, companies, and civil society organizations engaged in tackling this issue. What it needs is probably more support and market-driven solutions.
Individually and collectively, the business community has embarked on projects, such as Scaling Up Nutrition, Pilipinas Kontra Gutom, and other support projects. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution because there are too many segments of the population who are vulnerable and in need. However, given the magnitude of the problem and its long-term impact on individuals and on society in general, it makes sense to think through and establish a public-private partnership to reduce malnutrition. Such an effort could accomplish a few things over time: boost the agricultural and food industry, reduce health burdens, improve education outcomes, raise productivity, and spur economic growth.
Guillermo M. Luz is chief resilience officer at the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (pdrf.org)
Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected])
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