Good Nutrition Fuels Economic Growth

Legions of economists have debated how to revive the economy since the global financial crisis struck in 2008. The latest indications -- from the stock market and some of the world's premier think tanks - suggest we may finally be on a path to recovery. But how do we ensure the future health of the global economy, they ask?

One answer they're unlikely to offer, considering that it doesn't come from the field of economics at all, is a simple solution based on sound evidence --and we know exactly how to implement it.

Improve nutrition.

Infants and young children who suffer from inadequate nutrition early in life suffer lifelong cognitive deficits. These deficits lead to poorer educational attainment and lowered financial earnings over the course of a whole career.

According to the World Bank, under-nutrition early in life can cost someone 10 percent of his or her lifetime earnings. In countries where under-nutrition is widespread in the population, the cumulative effect can shave 3 percent off of annual Gross Domestic Product.

This means that poor nutrition is not only a critical humanitarian issue -- it's an important economic one.

And while economists and politicians debate their competing theories and policies, in the field of nutrition we have actually reached consensus: above all else, it's vital to ensure proper nutrition in the first thousand days of a child's life.

This period is critical, because it's when our bodies and minds are most rapidly forming. This development process is intensive, demanding the proper amounts and combinations of vitamins and nutrients. Without adequate nutrition in the first thousand days of life, the developmental setbacks last forever-even if the person is properly nourished later on.

More than four in every 10 children under the age of five in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished. And stunting-where a person's body doesn't grow as quickly as it should-is one of the most common consequences of under-nutrition.

The most robust study ever conducted on the long-term effects of under-nutrition found that even after 25 years, when controlling for other factors, adults who had been stunted in the first thousand days of life averaged three fewer years of education and scored significantly lower on IQ tests when compared to adults who had not been stunted.

Those adults who had not been stunted were 28 percent more likely to have undertaken work in a skilled or "white collar" job, and they were 34 percent less likely to live in a poor household.

The challenges posed by under-nutrition are clear. But what about the solutions? Fortunately, the solutions are straightforward to implement. And the long-term benefits are obvious -- sometimes even visible.

When I was a child in my home country of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in South Asia, it was common to see people with large, round protrusions stemming from their necks, called a goiter. Goiters were so common in Nepal that growing up I thought they were a normal characteristic of the human body. Like some people have curly hair, I assumed some people just had goiters. It was only as an adult that I learned that goiters are caused by iodine deficiency.

The body doesn't make iodine -- you have to ingest it through your diet. Goiters are just the most visible sign of not ingesting enough iodine. The other hidden, and more harmful, consequence is irreparable brain damage.

But just a teaspoon of iodine over one's lifetime is enough to prevent the mental and bodily harm that comes from iodine deficiency. So Nepal passed a law requiring salt to be iodized. Within two decades goiter has vanished and along with it a major cause of brain damage and mental retardation afflicting millions of Nepalese.

While the solutions to under-nutrition are simple, implementing them does take resources. The United Nations projects that meeting the nutritional needs of the world's mothers and children would cost an additional $10.3 billion per year -- about what Americans spend each year on potato chips and Halloween candy.

On June 8th, world leaders are gathering in London for a pledging conference focused on nutrition. President Barack Obama's administration has an opportunity to lead other countries to invest in adequate nutrition for people everywhere.

Filling just 10 percent of the resource gap -- with a pledge of $1.35 billion -- would encourage other countries to contribute their share. While this figure amounts to a fraction of U.S. investments in overseas aid, it would have a tremendous impact on global efforts to improve nutrition.

It's natural to want to be frugal while the economy gets back on its feet. But nutrition is not some frivolous expense. It's an essential human need, and investing in it will yield economic benefits for generations to come.


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