A cure for hidden hunger
Consider this: while more than one billion adults globally are overweight and suffer from lifestyle-related diseases, two billion people go to bed every night suffering from hunger or hidden hunger, defined as a lack of essential nutrients. The effects of hidden hunger are rife in the developing world, where poverty and poor nutrition lock generations into a downward spiral of stunting, poor health, and economic hardship. The nutrition a child receives in the first 1,000 days after conception effectively determines whether it is blessed or cursed for the remainder of its life, irrespective of any future healthy diet.
Malnutrition affects roughly half the world’s population, with devastating physical, mental, financial, economic, and societal impact. We have reached two related conclusions at Royal DSM, a life-sciences and materials-sciences company with annual revenues of about €10 billion (approximately $13 billion). First, we want to help end hidden hunger, an entirely solvable problem. Second, we understand that no single organization can achieve this goal by itself.
The social role of business has changed dramatically over the last century, given the vastly greater impact that companies now have on society and the world at large. With increased impact comes increased responsibility, rendering obsolete the old paradigm in which governments and international organizations were solely responsible for addressing social issues such as malnutrition. At DSM we believe companies have a responsibility to create value along societal, environmental, and economic dimensions, commonly known as People, Planet, and Profit.
However, today’s global challenges are too large to be solved by any single organization or sector. In addition to malnutrition, they include ending poverty, improving public health, mitigating the unequal distribution and use of resources, addressing the threat of climate change, and developing alternative energy sources. The enormity of these issues will only increase as our population ages, becomes more urbanized, and swells to nine billion people by 2050. Public-private partnerships can magnify and accelerate the impact of the various partners, be they governments, companies, scientists, or NGOs. Building on core competencies to create shared value across a broad range of stakeholders is absolutely essential if we are to deliver value rapidly and at scale.
The 2008 Copenhagen Consensus meeting ranked micronutrient supplementation and fortification among the top three international development priorities. Combating malnutrition is not only a humanitarian imperative; it also yields enormous economic returns. Better nutrition can increase a nation’s GDP by two to three percentage points. The Copenhagen Consensus calculated that every US dollar invested in nutrition today would yield a return of at least $30. As the world’s largest manufacturer of micronutrients, DSM has embarked on a number of successful partnerships that we think are models for broader efforts down the road.
At the 2013 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, DSM announced the extension of its six-year partnership with the World Food Program (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization dedicated to fighting hunger. Between now and 2015, we will work with the WFP to combat malnutrition and hidden hunger in the developing world. Together we seek to double the population that benefits from our work, from 15 million a year today to between 25 and 30 million by 2015. With the leverage provided by our WFP partnership, we believe that every DSM employee will be nourishing well over 1,000 people a year by 2015.
We need to ensure that hungry people receive not just food but also proper nutrition so that they can develop, learn, and contribute to their own societies. Our partnership with WFP has contributed to expanding the global food agenda from food security to food and nutrition security. Working in countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Nepal, we have improved diets by providing vitamins and other essential micronutrients. In the future, the partnership will target pregnant and nursing women, young children, and vulnerable households.
Working with the WFP, we have developed specific solutions for targeted populations. They include micronutrient powder sachets to enrich staple foods, and rice fortified with vitamins, iron, and zinc to prevent blindness. We have also developed healthy date bars and high-energy biscuits, all based on our proprietary food science. Throughout, we bring knowledge, proprietary science, nutritional ingredients and a worldwide presence to the table. The WFP and DSM often engage local food producers to make a biscuit or bar based on our ingredients and recipes. Leveraging the WFP’s global distribution infrastructure, these nutritional products are delivered to needy populations in various ways. For instance, school-feeding programs encourage young children in countries like Bangladesh and Kenya to go to school where food is provided, instead of begging on the streets or working in factories or in the fields. These kids now receive nutritious meals while doing their schoolwork, a benefit that their parents rarely enjoyed.
In several countries, including Bangladesh, we provide MixMe sachets containing micronutrients that families can then mix into rice and other staple foods. and thereby have a healthy diet. We, DSM and WFP, have learned that it’s essential to educate people on what these nutritional products are and how to use them. One example is the importance of hand washing before mixing to maintain adequate hygiene. From a nutrition perspective, it’s even more crucial to ensure that the products are consumed at regular intervals throughout the week and shared equally within the family. We have learned that mothers in many countries understand these realities far better than men do, which is why we have shifted from the so-called family head to women as our key partners in many programs.
In so-called food-for-work programs, meanwhile, farmers learn to increase crop yields by developing their land. These projects provide food aid to compensate for reduced yields during the first few years of land development. Properly executed, food-for-work programs can help entire societies to sustain themselves. The costs involved in fortifying rice, for instance, are very modest, adding two to five percent to current market prices. These costs are far outweighed by the personal, societal, and economic benefits, with reduced healthcare costs alone making the investment worthwhile. In short, rice can be transformed into a solution for malnutrition in the developing world.
Our fortified rice program taught us a valuable lesson. We developed Vitamin A–fortified rice kernels and mixed them with non-fortified kernels. The fortified and nonfortified kernels looked slightly different. We witnessed many people throwing the enriched kernels from their plates to chickens scratching around nearby. It was obvious that we needed to spend more time focusing on local needs and customs, as well as educating communities about the health benefits of fortified rice. To our surprise , we were later asked to provide the differentiated rice kernels, because slightly more educated people wanted to show them off when inviting their families and friends over to eat healthier food.
Despite DSM’s long track record of developing nutritional products that meet the needs of vulnerable populations worldwide, we understand there is no “one size fits all” solution to the problem of hidden hunger. So what is to be done? We hosted a high-level working session on this issue at the 2013 World Economic Forum, with input from the WFP, the United Nations, World Vision, Unilever, GAIN, and other key stakeholders.
We agreed that companies in the agriculture and food value chains should engage more widely, including at national levels, by bringing in their specific know-how, skills and competencies to address (hidden) hunger Meanwhile, governments should foster multisector approaches linked to improvements in the agriculture sector, where significant gains can be made. We can only be successful if the entire food supply chain works together, from farming, fertilizers, fortification, food production, distribution, teaching, dealing with waste, and so on.
The transition from individual pilot projects to large-scale impact can be accelerated by setting up projects that provide an economic incentive for local people to make them self-sustaining. Nutrition security (a broader category than just food security) must be on the G8’s agenda and feature prominently in the post–Millennium Development Goals agenda. Stakeholders must work harder and more effectively to raise the visibility of malnutrition as a pressing and entirely solvable issue.
This would help create broader awareness about the magnitude of the problem. It would also highlight the enormous humanitarian and economic benefits of addressing hidden hunger. In addition, we need to agree on how to measure the improvements we are going to make.
The hard truth is that a mother loses a child due to malnutrition every five seconds, somewhere on this planet. DSM is working in partnership with other organizations who share our belief that these deaths are needless and preventable. Especially because we cannot be successful, nor even call ourselves successful, in a world that fails.