Malnutrition impairs human capital in developing countries, says BIFAD Chair Deaton

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Brady Deaton (second from right) spoke at a panel at the World Food Prize about the economic effects of malnutrition and the improvement of human capital. Deaton is chair of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development. (Photo by Mark Varner)

By Eric Knapp

DES MOINES, Iowa — Without advancements in human capital, it is impossible for developing countries to alleviate poverty, promote socioeconomic development and experience national economic growth.

That’s the conclusion of Brady J. Deaton, former University of Missouri chancellor and current chair of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD).

The root issues preventing developing nations from improving human capital are malnutrition and undernutrition, Deaton said in an interview Thursday after speaking on a panel at the World Food Prize meeting at the Marriott Downtown Hotel.

“Nutrition is critical in building healthy bodies and healthy minds and data shows that sound investments in nutrition have tremendous payoff,” he said. “When people in developing countries become micronutrient malnourished, they begin to experience growth stunting, cognitive difficulties and susceptibility to disease.”

Deaton explained that improvements to both nutritional status and child development are crucial in economic growth and poverty reduction. With undernutrition contributing to more than 2.6 million child deaths each year, BIFAD and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are fighting to encourage political involvement that will accelerate programs that reduce hunger, malnutrition and undernutrition worldwide.

Deaton compared the nutrition investments in developing countries to the same investments made by corporations to increase profits. For developing nations, the return on investment comes in the form of improved education, economic growth and increases in skilled workers.

“There is a positive impact on food security through health and nutrition investments as well as through agricultural research and infrastructure development,” he said. “Data shows that improved nutrition has positive effects on educational performance.”

Deaton said that the monotonous diets of the poor around the globe are mainly cereal-based and greatly lacking in micronutrients. According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, vitamin A, iodine and iron deficiency are among the most widely documented micronutrient malnutrition disorders. Iron deficiency anemia is the worst problem developing nations face, affecting 3.5 billion people annually.

“Nutrition is very complex, and there are many dimensions and issues that surround it,” he said. “The history and culture of a country determine what foods people will eat in certain regions of the world.”

People who lack proper diets “are at risk for terrible diseases,” he said.

BIFAD is conducting research in human nutrition to learn more about the development of human capacity and how nutrition can improve economic and social development. USAID has made strides in enabling access to U.S. technology for educators, small businesses and smallholder farmers to form partnerships between public and private organizations.

Deaton said he witnessed the detrimental effects of malnutrition on society while he was reviewing the progress of agricultural development in Haiti for BIFAD.

“While I was there I saw how many Haitians were not eating enough to be able to get a day’s worth of work done,” he said. “It was truly terrible to see that so much productivity was lost in the everyday lives and negatively affected the work of adults and the academics of children.”

But malnutrition is not the only problem Deaton believes must be solved to improve human capital in developing nations.

“We see higher education as a fundamental requisite for sustaining the pathways to sustainability, environmental integrity and economic growth,” he said. “Building independent institutions that can educate, conduct relevant research and be the economic and knowledge base for the future remains our goal.”

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