By Dr. Manfred Eggersdorfer
Dr. Manfred Eggersdorfer is a Professor for Healthy Ageing at the University Medical Center Groningen and a Senior Vice President and Head for Nutritional Science Advocacy at DSM Nutritional Products.
We are witnessing a pivotal moment for nutrition. Forty-two countries have committed to scaling-up nutrition through the SUN Movement, and this number continues to grow. Governments and donors have pledged billions—$4.15 billion at the Nutrition for Growth event in the UK this June. But perhaps the most important development has been a new spirit of collaboration.
When the Lancet’s 2008 Series on Maternal and Child Undernutrition was published, it highlighted that the biggest challenges in the fight against malnutrition could be coming from within. Today we know that siloed efforts have proved unsuccessful in fighting the root causes of malnutrition and that a new way of thinking—one that embodies collective action and cross-sector partnerships—is crucial to the future success of the nutrition movement.
Collective action is vital because every sector touches nutrition, and nutrition touches every sector. Better farming practices make nutritious food more accessible. Health care and improvements to water, hygiene, and sanitation prevent diseases like diarrhea, which rob children of nutrients. Public-private partnerships like food fortification programs ensure that people get the micronutrients they need to stay healthy and fight disease. Support for nutrition interventions like breastfeeding gives babies a strong start in life.
And well-nourished children can then grow up to excel in the fields, in the laboratory, or in the Capitol.
In fact, it has been estimated that undernutrition reduces a nation’s economic advancement by at least 8 percent due to direct productivity losses, losses via poorer cognition, and losses via reduced schooling. Children who are well-nourished—especially in the 1,000 days between pregnancy and their second birthday—grow up to learn more, earn more, and stay healthy. But those who are malnourished suffer irreversible and lifelong damage, including stunted growth and impaired cognitive development.
One aspect of malnutrition that affects two billion people worldwide—in both developing and developed countries—is hidden hunger, or chronic micronutrient deficiencies. Addressing hidden hunger is a perfect example of how partners have come together across sectors to improve nutrition.
Take vitamin A and iron deficiencies as an example. A staggering 190 million children under the age of 5 suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which kills 670,000 children each year by damaging their immune systems—turning common diseases like diarrhea, malaria, and measles fatal. Insufficient vitamin A is also the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Chronic lack of vitamin A often occurs along with iron and other micronutrient deficiencies, which carry their own health consequences. Iron-deficiency anemia causes cognitive defects and saps strength, reducing school performance and lowering work productivity. It also contributes to 20 percent of all maternal deaths.
Because so many people are not able to get the micronutrients they need from available foodstuffs, micronutrient supplements are a key intervention. But for various reasons, it has been a challenge to deliver vital micronutrients to all the children who need them. Iron drops used in the past had a metallic taste and stained teeth, causing mothers and caregivers to reject them. An effective supplement with no taste was not then available.
Researchers at DSM developed an innovative micronutrient powder (MNP) packed in small sachets that mixes with food without impacting taste. DSM then partnered with the UN’s World Food Programme to deliver the MNP in countries including Bangladesh, Kenya, Nepal, and the Philippines. Impact assessments of large-scale MNP distribution have revealed declines in anemia as well as declines in stunted growth and development.
What does it mean at the village level when researchers, business, UN agencies, civil society and other sectors collaborate to reduce micronutrient deficiency?
It means fewer children falling sick.
Fewer adults too fatigued to work.
Fewer mothers dying in childbirth.
These real-world results were top of mind for me as global leaders gathered twice in September to discuss nutrition – first at the International Congress of Nutrition, and then at the UN General Assembly. The theme of collaboration could be felt at both of these key meetings. As SUN Movement Coordinator, David Nabarro, noted in the new book, The Road to Good Nutrition, only together can we “accelerate our progress along the path to a world where everyone receives the food and the nutrition to which they have a self-evident right.”
Dr. Manfred Eggersdorfer is a Professor for Healthy Ageing at the University Medical Center Groningen and a Senior Vice President and Head for Nutritional Science Advocacy at DSM Nutritional Products, the world leader in vitamins, carotenoids and nutritional ingredients. DSM and its nonprofit humanitarian initiative, Sight and Life, have just launched a new book, ‘The Road to Good Nutrition,’ part of their Vitamins in Motion campaign. The book is available for free at vitaminsinmotion.com.