MANILA, Philippines – Malnutrition not only impacts on an individual’s health, but also imposes social and economic burdens on countries, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
“The cost to the global economy caused by malnutrition, as a result of lost productivity and direct health care costs, could account for as much as 5% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), equivalent to $3.5 trillion/year or $500/person,” FAO said in its 2013 State of Food and Agriculture report.
Given the estimated $500/person (about P22,305) loss, this means that the Philippines, with a population of 96.71 million, is losing up to more than P2 trillion/year from lost productivity and health care costs caused by malnutrition.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) defines malnutrition as a state when a person’s “diet does not provide adequate calories and protein for growth and maintenance.” Malnutrition comes in the form of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, obesity, and being underweight or overweight.
15.6 million Filipinos were undernourished from 2011 to 2013, according to the FAO 2013 World Food Insecurity report. This barely improved in two decades.
|Number of malnourished Filipinos
Source: FAO 2013 World Food Insecurity Report
Among developing Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines has the 2nd biggest undernourished population, next to Indonesia.
|Number of undernourished people in millions (2011-2013)|
no available data
Source: FAO 2013 World Food Insecurity Report
What do these numbers mean?
Undernourishment not only weakens the body, but also the mind. If a big part of the population is unhealthy, the country’s workforce may weaken – hence, compromising the nation’s productivity and economic performance.
Malnutrition among children may signal a bleak future.
Poor health results in lost hours of productivity – either at school, work, or in other creative pursuits – and it “drains family and natural resources,” the FAO said.
The 1992 International Nutrition Conference (INC) recognized that “the nutritional well-being of all people is a pre-condition for the development of societies and that it should be a key objective of progress in human development.”
Many of these problems actually begin in the womb.
If pregnant women do not receive their nutritional needs, infants may develop health complications, affecting their physical and cognitive abilities. Some of the damage is irreversible and may manifest in their health, behavior, and performance as adults. (READ: Hungry children and their behavior)
Women’s limited access to health services, employment, education and skills training, resources and proper knowledge on maternal care, reproductive health, and childcare practices can contribute to poor nutrition.
The INC declared that “women should be given the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process and to have increased access to and control of resources.”
Meanwhile, the Philippine Commission on Women reported that the country’s percentage of female-headed households has increased over the years.
|Percentage of female-headed households in the Philippines||10%||11.3%||13.5%||21.2%|
With only one adult working and plenty of mouths to feed, women are once again at the forefront of battling hunger and poverty.
Among food insecure households, women are more vulnerable to malnutrition because of their unique physiological requirements.
“Women are smaller and have lower metabolic rates and less muscle on average than men, which means they need about 25% less dietary energy/day. Yet women require the same amount or more of many nutrients. To compensate for their smaller portions of food, they have to eat a much higher proportion of nutrient-rich foods,” FAO explained.
In terms of employment, there has always been more men participating in the labor force, according to the Department of Labor and Employment.
Some mothers are either unemployed or underemployed, and others are unable to work because they have to look after their young children. Malnutrition may also limit the kind of work mothers can do – the unhealthier they are, the less they can do.
These problems hinder them from becoming economically independent.
As a result of poverty, more children are beginning to work to help their parents put food on the table.
In 2011, there were 5.49 million working children aged 5-17 years old; more than half (2.99 million) engaged in hazardous child labor – 3 out of 10 of these children did not attend school, according to the latest Survey on Children by the National Statistics Office (NSO) and the International Labor Organization.
The National Statistics Office reported that 1 out of every 8 Filipinos aged 6-24 years old in 2010 was an out-of-school youth – those not enrolled in school nor gainfully employed. The number has doubled from 3 million in 1989 to over 6 million in 2010.
This can deteriorate children’s health, especially those who are already malnourished to begin with.
Investing in nutrition
The Philippines, both children and adults, experiences the many consequences of malnutrition in all its forms. (READ: The PH hunger situation)
To end the vicious cycle, FAO advised countries to look at the multiple factors tied to hunger and poverty – “food security and nutrition-enhancing interventions in agriculture, health, hygiene, water supply and education, particularly targeting women.” (READ: Where does the PH stand in its fight against hunger?)
“Long-term commitment to mainstreaming food security and nutrition in public policies and programs is key to hunger reduction. Keeping food security and agriculture high on the development agenda, through comprehensive reforms, improvements in the investment climate, supported by sustained social protection, is crucial for achieving major reductions in poverty and undernourishment,” FAO stressed. (READ: What is the PH doing to address food insecurity?)
FAO said that “higher levels of poverty are linked with higher prevalence of undernourishment.”
The World Bank suggested that “direct investments in nutrition have the potential to improve nutrition outcomes much faster than economic growth alone can.” It cited 3 ways how improved nutrition can alleviate poverty:
- Bigger and healthier bodies lead to higher physical productivity
- Well-nourished children are more intelligent, better learners in school, and more productive as adults
- Well-nourished populations spend less on health care, freeing resources for investment and growth
The World Bank advised governments to invest in nutrition programs, since good nutrition can help improve a country’s GDP by 2%-3%. (READ: PH school feeding programs)
The prevalence of malnutrition is often twice or thrice as high among the poorest, according to the World Bank, hence the need to make nutrition programs more accessible.
Aside from losing millions of pesos to malnutrition, the Philippines is also losing lives and opportunities for further growth and development. – Rappler.com