Nutrition is an economic issue as much as a health issue

Posted: 7 December 2021 | | 3 comments

UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit Dr Agnes Kalibata identifies the economic impact of bad nutrition and calls on food businesses to do more.


Too often, nutrition is seen only to be a health issue affecting individuals alone. But by the time the signs of malnutrition emerge, significant – and sometimes irreversible – damage is already done, costing wider society an estimated $3.5 trillion a year.

By stunting their growth, poor diets have set back the physical and cognitive development of as many as 150 million pre-school children around the world, while the 40 million overweight are already at greater risk of non-communicable diseases.

These impairments also impact the economy at large. Companies lose up to $38 billion every year in reduced productivity because workers are underweight, while obesity dents productivity to the tune of an estimated $27 billion. Diet-related issues also add long-term cost burdens to healthcare systems, estimated at more than $1.3 trillion a year by 2030 alone.

At the recent UN Food Systems Summit, it was encouraging to see the top priority that African Heads of State expressed concern about was delivering healthy diets and nutrition to their people. Delivering healthy diets for all was also the number one priority coming from a youth declaration representing pledges from more than 100,000 youth. 

“Food businesses need to step up”

Thankfully, delivering healthy nutrition is not as complicated as it might seem; it is about information and access. Fortifying infant food with iron and vitamin A, for example, can easily be achieved through policies that recognise their importance to cognitive capacity later in life and immunity, respectively.

And the business case is also strong. The combined impact of better nutrition, when health, livelihoods and productivity are all taken into account, represents a business opportunity of $4.5 trillion a year by 2030 – for an investment of around $300 billion.

Improving diets and global nutrition must address the root causes of all three forms of malnutrition, including under-nutrition, overnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. A food systems approach to nutrition means seizing every opportunity to enable the shift towards healthy and sustainable diets at every step in the value chain.

To this end, governments and the agri-food sector must recognise and fulfil their important role in improving food habits and environments. Food businesses need to step up and invest in healthier, sustainable product ranges, while also making healthy foods more accessible and affordable.

un in new york

African Heads of State expressed concern about delivering healthy diets at the recent UN Food Systems Summit in New York

Helping the most vulnerable

And yet, only two food and drink companies out of more than 230 surveyed have set targets to improve access to nutritious foods among vulnerable population groups, according to the World Benchmarking Alliance. Meanwhile, a separate report found only 10 percent of the 100 biggest agri-food companies set a corporate goal for portfolios to contribute to healthy and sustainable diets.

At the sharp end of food production, particularly across the Global South, smallholder farmers and small-scale producers need more opportunities, from financial services to access to markets, to improve their livelihoods and reverse the cruel irony that they are among the most likely to go hungry and malnourished.

Small- and medium-sized businesses that add value to goods must have the knowledge and capacity they need to fortify food, and consumers must be given information that allows them to avoid foods that do not meet the needs of their families.

Also among the most critical areas to improve is the supply of school meals for children, millions of whom rely on school feeding programs for their only meal of the day. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 370 million children lost their one opportunity for a nutritious meal when schools closed.

School Meals Coalition has recently been established to leverage the power of both the public and private sector to deliver healthy, nutritious meals for children. With procurement policies that incentivise heathier food, governments and local authorities can help drive the market towards delivering nutritious meals for all children.

Finally, addressing malnutrition also means improving food labelling and marketing standards to limit the promotion of unhealthy products high in salt and sugar. This is particularly important in Africa, where childhood obesity doubled from 5.4 million in 1990 to 10.6 million in 2014. Businesses must rethink busines

s models that hurt children and deny them an opportunity to a decent life.

Information is key, with governments and companies having a responsibility to support better dietary choices rather than encouraging consumers to prioritise “Western” diets and products as a sign of affluence. Shifts away from unhealthy products can also bring economic benefits. South Africa’s sugar tax, for example, generated revenue for the public purse of US$214 million in less than a year.

The Nutrition For Growth Summit, hosted by the Government of Japan, is an opportunity to spotlight this true cost of poor nutrition and continue the momentum towards transitioning global diets and food systems for the better.

Good nutrition is a prerequisite for good health, and improving nutrition should be seen as an investment by both governments and companies to our collective well-being as well, both now and for future generations.

About the author

As the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Dr. Kalibata works with the United Nations system and key partners to provide leadership, guidance and strategic direction towards the 2021 Food Systems Summit. She is responsible for outreach and cooperation with key leaders, including governments, to ensure the Summit serves as a catalytic process within the Decade of Action to improve food systems around the world to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement.

3 responses to “Nutrition is an economic issue as much as a health issue”

  1. We Sell Gyms says:

    Great content! Nutrition is a very important part of our diet but the government is not taking responsibility. This is affecting the health of school students. I will surely share this article with my friends.

  2. Mwanga Julius says:

    Very good and informative nutrition piece. But how do we ensure government commitments in conferences/summits are turned into reality. School food for 15 m Ugandan children/learners is maize flour which is not fortified yet Uganda has a fortification policy. This is where we expect to get our future labor force (Doctors, Engineers etc)The other question is how do we make fortified food affordable for all. All fortified food in Uganda costs an extra shillings compared to unfortified. We want to see these discussions move down from international summits to local parliaments, councils, parents’ meetings churches etc) Thank you for the good piece again.

  3. Hassan Ndisho says:

    Much as we talk about sustainable food nutrition for our health, we shouldn’t forget the importance of edible herbs and spices which have promoted our bodies Immunity since creation.
    We need to emphasize this importance equally as we strive to promote healthy food production and consumption.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *