Good nutrition is the nexus point where food security, public health and environmental protection meet.

As world leaders in Copenhagen struggle for an ambitious deal, let us not forget that it is the future of our children that is at stake. Hurricanes, floods, heat-waves and droughts wreak havoc when they strike, but in the desolation they leave behind it’s relatively easy to reconstruct a road or a house. A human life is lost forever. Malnutrition is a major consequence of the disasters associated with climate change. According to the latest FAO figures, malnutrition is still rising, killing a child every six seconds. When crops fail and farmland and fisheries are wiped out, food becomes scarce, and then it’s the same old sad story: the most vulnerable, in the world’s poorest countries, suffer the most.

The world’s inability to curb harmful greenhouse gases and to find alternatives to fossil fuels will drive people further into poverty. Those affected will be trying to survive on a diet from which meat and other expensive protein and nutrient-rich foods have disappeared to be replaced by cheaper, starchy staples. A new generation will contribute their names to the shameful roll call of 1.02 billion people around the world who already don’t get enough of the right kind of food to eat.

Malnutrition stunts physical and mental development and damages immune systems. Children become ill or fail to thrive, unable to develop to their full potential at school and later at work. The economic cost to populations weakened by disease and hunger can scarcely be measured, but it is small in comparison to the human cost. If temperatures rise by more than 3°C, calorie availability in 2050 will decline back to the 2000 level thus increasing child malnutrition by 20 per cent. Climate change will eliminate much of the improvement achieved so far in child malnourishment levels.

At GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, we are fighting back. Good nutrition is the nexus point where food security, public health and environmental protection meet. By bringing together governments, businesses, NGOs and private donors, we have been rolling out programmes around the world, fortifying everyday foods with a range of essential vitamins and minerals. Our task is all the more urgent today in the wake of the global economic recession and with the growing impact of climate change.

One of our approaches is to encourage companies to add micronutrients to staple foods such as wheat, maize and vegetable oil and to condiments such as salt and soy sauce. Food fortification works and it is a cheap intervention. It costs just a few cents per individual per year to add iodine to salt and up to 25 cents to add more complex vitamins and minerals. According to a recent World Bank report, the benefits from iron fortification of staples and salt iodization alone are estimated at $7.2 billion per year. And the leading economists at the Copenhagen Consensus 2008 conference called vitamins for undernourished children “the world’s best investment.”

In my own country of South Africa the results of adding folic acid to maize meal and wheat flour have been spectacular. The nation saw a 30 per cent drop in neural tube birth defects while spina bifida was down 41.6 per cent. In China, data collected from sentinel surveys in 21 health clinics showed that anaemia dropped by approximately one third following the fortification of soy sauce with iron.

In another GAIN initiative, sachets of ‘sprinkles’ are delivered directly to families through large retailers and market stalls in Bangladesh. The powders, rich in vitamins and minerals, cost little and are easily added to any meal to boost its nutritional value. And here in India we are supporting the Naandi Foundation to fortify children’s food — reaching 800,000 school children each day in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. Our food fortification programmes are cheap, simple and cost-effective; they are also efficient and sustainable.

These programmes are just part of the solution and we need to scale-up: time is pressing. Hunger and malnutrition kill more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined yet donors invest less than $300 million a year. And to put this in perspective, low-income countries spend 2.6 per cent of their GDP on the military compared to one per cent for public health.

Priorities must change. Global food security has deteriorated since 1995, and already efforts to reduce childhood malnutrition are moving too slowly to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Already in India, close to 75 per cent of children under 5 are iron deficient, 50 per cent are vitamin A deficient and close to 1 in 2 children are underweight. Such vitamin and mineral deficiencies will reduce India’s GDP by 3 per cent. Meanwhile flooding, increased precipitation and higher temperatures, all set to occur more frequently with climate change, are likely lead to more malnourished children.

Climate change will increase malnutrition for the world’s most vulnerable people. We need an ambitious deal in Copenhagen to protect the well-being of an increasing proportion of the world’s population, particularly women, children and low-income families in India and around the world. Meanwhile, the programmes developed by GAIN and its partners have already started to give them real hope for a better future. But we must do much more.

( Jay Naidoo is Chair of the Development Bank of Southern Africa and Chair of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition — a global NGO dedicated to tackling malnutrition. Jay is a well known political figure in South Africa, having served in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet in the country’s first democratic government where he was principally involved in the nation’s reconstruction projects post-apartheid. For more information about GAIN: www.gainhealth.org)

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