20 Aug Are high costs for nutritious food leading to a global malnutrition epic?
The cost of food staples is affected by many factors, from geopolitical trade tensions to access to education. In countries like South Africa, where there is developed infrastructure but also high-income inequality and unemployment, many people struggle to attain quality nutrition. Are high food costs the primary factor leading to global malnutrition? Read on to learn more about the links between food costs and nutrition:
Affordability is not the only factor in global malnutrition
According to Nathan Gray in his article for Nutra Ingredients, the link between diet and health is not all about affordability. Gray describes, for example, how the low cost of less nutritious food (such as sugar-rich snacks) in developed as well as developing countries also impacts nutrition. Thus lower cost does not automatically guarantee quality nutrition.
Is the high cost of healthy food a global nutrition crisis?
Gray describes how studies have found links between milk consumption and reduced risk of child stunting.
Comparing the price of milk between, for example, Australia and South Africa, we see that the cost per litre in South Africa is 9.40% lower in SA than elsewhere in the Southern hemisphere. However, with SA’s unemployment rate at 29% as of the second quarter of 2019, ‘purchase price affordability’ is not a straight comparison. Nearly a third of South Africa’s population simply cannot afford healthier staples even if they are comparatively cheaper locally than they are abroad.
We thus see that local, specific factors substantially affect public health and nutrition. Even if milk is cheaper to purchase locally compared to abroad, local economic factors (such as the average household’s purchasing power) determine who has access.
Equal nutrition also dependent on public health and other social initiatives
High cost for healthy food relative to families’ incomes is certainly a factor in malnutrition, not only in South Africa but globally. Initiatives beyond cost management are also important, however.
The United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) lists, for example, the addition of key vitamins and minerals to starchy staples such as wheat flour and maize flour that have a high-calorie content yet provide mainly simple carbohydrates.
Ernest Mabuza for the Sunday Times breaks down a report by Statistics South Africa outlining key measures that need to be taken to ease malnutrition, beyond making healthy food affordable. These include nutrition interventions being readily available for pregnant women at risk, to ensure children have access to nutritional support from infancy.
Healthy nutrition begins with education and access
The cost of food alone does not encompass the many complex factors that determine public nutrition. For example, the report Mabuza references states that almost half of three-year-old children in SA have not participated in early childhood development programmes that teach children about healthy nutrition, among other subjects.
Malnutrition is thus closely linked to unstable access not only to healthy food but vital public services that empower people at every stage of development.
The global outlook on malnutrition in developing countries
In a report titled ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019’, UNICEF states that ‘more than 820 million people or 10.8% of people in the world today are still hungry’, adding that ‘hunger is on the rise in almost all African subregions’.
In the full 239-page report, UNICEF outlines key drivers of global crises in nutrition. On page 59 of the report, they describe conflict as ‘the key driver of food crises’. They also further describe the effect of ‘economic shocks’ such as rising unemployment and currency depreciation as factors driving food insecurity.
Global malnutrition is situated within complex economic systems
Examining UNICEF’s report gives a clearer understanding of just how complex a public health issue such as malnutrition is. High prices for healthy foods are a symptom of larger, more systemic issues. Political and economic policy decisions in a country ripple out and trickle down into food security.
As UNICEF puts it, ‘Foreign exchange drains, depreciation and devaluation of currencies may pass through the economic system, resulting in rising domestic prices, unemployment, loss of wages, and consequently loss of incomes.
We live in such a globalized world that trade tensions between the USA and China, for example, have the power to produce such shocks, what UNICEF terms ‘macroeconomic aggregate shocks affecting multiple households’. Events on the global political stage thus have the power to reduce vulnerable households’ purchasing power to the point of consumers having to change spending patterns and adopt lower-nutrient diets.
Thus although the world is getting hungrier, in UNICEF’s words, this is not simply a matter of targeting pricing itself. Equal access to quality nutrition requires fair, just, socially-responsible decision-making at a policy level since pricing fluctuates according to global shocks, upticks and downturns.