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Investing in nutrition for accelerated economic growth

Nutrition stands out as a critical concern with far-reaching ramifications for well-being and societal advancement. Adequate nutrition is essential for overall health and well-being. Focusing on children’s nutrition in their early years of life is crucial for proper brain development and cognitive function and has a long-lasting impact on a person’s abilities and achievements throughout their life.

Proper nutrition, a healthy diet and adequate sleep help in rejuvenating the body and mind and giving a fresh perspective towards life.(Unsplash)

In India, the prevalence of undernourishment among the population declined from 21.4% in 2004-06 to 16.6% in 2020-22 as per the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report 2023. However, India is still home to a significant number of undernourished people, the highest burden of which is borne by young children, pregnant women and lactating mothers. This is also evidenced in the most recent National Family Health Survey- 5 (2019-21) which found that 89% of children between the formative ages of 6-23 months do not receive the minimum diet they need to lead a productive and healthy childhood.

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Malnutrition – in the forms of both undernutrition and overnutrition – is a global challenge. To solve a challenge of this scale, malnutrition must be treated as both an economic issue and a human issue. Consider that since malnutrition can lead to child mortality and morbidity, it also results in reduced labour productivity among the workforce and for children who will potentially work in the future. It also adds a burden on the current health systems and potentially increases the burden on future investment in health services.

The World Bank estimates that all forms of malnutrition cost the global economy $3.5 trillion per year. On the other hand, every $1 invested in nutrition can generate $16 in returns. Interventions designed to address micronutrient deficiencies and other dimensions of hunger and malnutrition are some of the best investments in benefits and costs, as mentioned in the Copenhagen Consensus. Tackling malnutrition requires governments and other stakeholders to adopt a multi-pronged approach involving access to safe and adequate nutritious food, policies and focused interventions for vulnerable populations, and orienting consumer behaviour towards healthier diets.

Given limited fiscal resources, it is important to make informed decisions on investments in improving the nutrition of the population and to prioritise interventions. Stakeholders need to gauge which interventions to invest in and the optimal investment required. Evidence-based economic analysis tools can be used to estimate the health, human capital, and economic costs of current levels of malnutrition.

For example, the Cost of Not Breastfeeding (CoNB) tool developed by Nutrition International using open access data, estimates the health and economic costs of not protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding. For India, the tool estimates that the total economic cost (mortality, morbidity and health system costs) due to not breastfeeding in the first six months is $15.8 billion per year, which is approximately 0.52% of the country’s gross national income.

Evidence generated through economic analysis can help to prioritise budget allocations towards a specific intervention, assist in the prioritisation of interventions, and enable decision-making for the reallocation of resources among multiple interventions. It also helps donors, partners and governments to understand the value of interventions, which, in turn, can inform and influence nutrition policy decisions, advocacy, and investments done globally and locally by governments and funding organisations.

The systematic collection of nutrition data – both at the national and sub-national levels – must remain regular and qualitative to make results more contextual and insightful. Additionally, improving awareness and capacity building of stakeholders to use these tools is also important.

India has an extremely conducive policy environment when it comes to strategic nutrition interventions, but it is also important to integrate nutrition as a critical component across sector investment plans to improve its reach and quality. Scaling up nutrition interventions with appropriate financing is a vital part of achieving the goal of reducing malnutrition. Sensitisation of policymakers and stakeholders towards the cross-sectoral dimension of nutrition and thereby investing in different underlying causes of malnutrition is critical.

Nutrition financing can help address the complex challenges of malnutrition by supporting a range of interventions aimed at improving access to nutritious foods, promoting healthy behaviours and strengthening health care systems. In the future, nutrition financing is likely to be shaped by a combination of evolving health priorities, technological advancements, and efforts to promote equity and sustainability in nutrition interventions. Informed nutrition actions not only improve the quality of life but are also an important development goal for a nation, it is the bedrock upon which the well-being and prosperity of both individuals and the nation rests.

This article is authored by Mini Varghese, country director – India and Surabhi Mittal, economist – Asia, Nutrition International.

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