Good economics and the right thing to do: how to eliminate hunger and malnutrition

Hunger and malnutrition are big global challenges that confront humanity. Nearly 850 million people across the globe are hungry. More than 2 billion people suffer from deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals, and about the same number of people are overweight and obese.

The development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to anchor the post-2015 development agenda is now well underway. Elimination of extreme poverty is at the center of the effort, but the agenda needs to give more attention to the elimination of hunger and malnutrition.

Elimination of hunger and malnutrition should be equally central because poverty, hunger and malnutrition are linked in a vicious cycle. Hunger and malnutrition affect the capability of individuals to escape poverty by reducing their capacity for physical activity and impairing physical and cognitive development.

Hunger and malnutrition impose huge social and economic costs, which can be felt at individual, household and societal levels. International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) research [pdf] shows that growth failure in early childhood is likely passed to the next generation. Productivity losses and direct healthcare costs caused by hunger and malnutrition also have adverse economy-wide effects. For example, hunger and under-nutrition cost [pdf] the global economy USD$1.4 to $2.1 trillion per year—the equivalent of 2 to 3 percent of global GDP, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. As a result of being overweight or obese, the World Health Organization estimates that about 3.4 million adults die each year, accounting for 3.9 percent of years of life lost.

The good news is that investments in eliminating hunger and malnutrition have high economic benefits. For instance, in India, research [pdf] shows that every dollar spent on interventions to reduce stunting is estimated to generate about USD$34 in economic returns.

Global development actors, including governments, development agencies, civil society, philanthropy organizations and the private sector, play a critical role in ensuring food security and nutrition. However, inefficient policies and practices that add to the burden of hunger and malnutrition—underinvestment in food security and nutrition; lack of social safety nets to protect the poorest; unsustainable use of natural resources in food production; trade restrictions; and gender inequality in agriculture—must be eliminated.

Over the years, a number of global and national commitments have been made to advance global food security and nutrition, but gross underinvestment in agriculture and nutrition persists. The emerging complexity of global development challenges requires increased and prioritized investments in food security and nutrition that take into account emerging trends. To achieve substantial improvement in nutrition, investments in both nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions are needed. Nutrition-specific interventions, such as micronutrient supplementation and adolescent health and pre-conception nutrition, help to address the immediate causes of under-nutrition. Nutrition-sensitive interventions, such as agriculture and food security programs and social safety nets, address the underlying causes of under-nutrition.

Well-targeted, productive and cross-sectoral social safety nets are still under provided in many developing and emerging countries. These safety nets are needed as short-term cushions for poor people in the face of livelihood shocks and also for long-term productivity-enhancing or exit opportunities for smallholders, for example. IFPRI research demonstrates that combining income transfers with a provision of agricultural services, such as extension, is more beneficial to smallholders than stand-alone programs.

Another source of inefficiency is unsustainable natural resource use for food production. Inefficient agricultural subsidies in many developed and developing countries promote overuse of natural resources and increase carbon emissions. Re-prioritization of limited resources towards high-return investments is needed to increase efficiency and eliminate hunger and malnutrition. However, the removal of such subsidies may cause food prices to increase with negative implications for poor producers and consumers. In this case, strong social safety nets have a key role to play.

Investments in agricultural technologies that produce more with less are also crucial. Resource-efficient agricultural technologies and practices, such as no-till farming, nitrogen-use efficiency, precision agriculture and drip irrigation help to get more nutrients with more efficient use of all inputs and natural resources.

Distortionary trade policies, such as export bans, lead to food price hikes and volatility, which hurt the poor and hinder the efficiency of agricultural markets. Avoiding such harmful policies to facilitate open, transparent and fair global trade promotes efficient allocation of resources and improves access to food.

Gender inequality also leads to inefficient allocation of resources. This, in turn, means reduced agricultural productivity and poor nutrition and health outcomes. Support for gender equality in agriculture, such as increased land rights, contributes to higher agricultural output in developing countries, as well as improved nutrition and health for women and children, as research demonstrates.

Concerted action to eliminate hunger and malnutrition calls for efficient policies and practices from all stakeholders. It is good economics and also the right thing to do.

This blog post is based on the keynote address that Dr Fan will be delivering at the Crawford Fund’s Annual Parliamentary Conference on Ethics, Efficiency and Food Security. Dr Fan will also be speaking at the Crawford School on 28 August. Details and registration here.

Dr Shenggen Fan is Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute

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Shenggen Fan

Shenggen Fan is the Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).


  • A good read, thank you, about very complex issues. To assist with clear analysis of the issues, I think it is probably best to separate hunger and under-nutrition out from the malnutrition associated with obesity. While essentially about food, and so similar in some areas, overall I think the required responses are mostly different, although I would love to engage in a discussion about this. Ultimately, the policies required need to be multi-sectoral and multi-level, which your recommendations highlight.

    At least for obesity ( and NCDs in general), the issue is about making the healthy choice the easy choice, which I believe happens through a combination of education and individual/family support, efforts to create or reinforce societal norms that support health-conducive behaviours and establishing structures that incentivise people. Individual-level interventions alone do not work, as we have seen through smoking prevention and cessation efforts, and action to address issues such as drunk-driving and ending violence against women.

    I agree with you that these issues need much more attention, particularly because they are difficult to sustainably address. At the very least, hunger alone requires no further justification for action and should be of the highest priority for funding. Hunger is a basic biological signal that the body is not getting the nutrition it needs to function and ultimately survive – justification enough for action.

    • Jo Spratt, thanks a lot for your insightful comments. Today, undernutrition and overnutrition (overweight and obesity) increasingly coexist, especially in emerging economies. In fact, evidence shows that there is a higher risk of adult obesity when undernutrition is present in childhood. While these two phenomena are different, some of the underlying causes are linked. Rapid urbanization and dietary changes towards meat products, for example, can put pressure on food systems (demand more water, land and energy) thereby adding to the burden of undernutrition (higher prices of nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables). These global trends can also lead to overweight and obesity and subsequently to non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, which takes competing public resources away from addressing undernutrition challenges. Solutions for these types of complexly-intertwined challenges that we face today certainly need to be guided by a multi-sectoral framework that aims to achieve multiple goals.

  • Shenggan, Thanks for your post. I was interested that you dropped in a fact on obesity and what a big problem it is, but then didn’t follow up on it when you were outlining solutions. Is that because there is no solution to obesity within the predominantly agricultural solution space you are looking in? Is it wise to confine our search for solutions in this way? Is it only “agriculture and food security programs and social safety nets” that can address the “underlying causes of under-nutrition”? What about industrialization (for under-nutrition)? What about informational problems (for both under-nutrition and obesity)? What about advertising (for obesity)? I would like to think that the Food Policy Research Institute would look across the board for solutions to food-related problems and not only for ones which relate to agriculture.

    • Stephen, thanks so much for your feedback. Obesity is a growing global concern, shared by developed and developing countries. A recent Lancet article reports that obesity is not just increasing, but there have been no national success stories in tackling obesity in the last 33 years. Also, the Copenhagen Consensus Center recently noted that projections on the elimination of overweight and obesity are uncertain due to sparse evidence on the implementation and effectiveness of interventions to address these growing challenges. It is certainly a complex issue that requires urgent attention and more effort.

      To solve the obesity problem, education and information campaigns are important, but labeling and proper regulation of the fast-food industry in both developed and emerging middle-income countries are also critical. Re-prioritizing investments and rethinking policies (as I mentioned in my response to Michael Wulfsohn) will also help address the obesity issue.

  • Shenggen,

    Thanks for the article, it is a great overview of how to maximise the benefits of aid activities in improving hunger and malnutrition. My comment relates to your conclusion that this area deserves more attention than it is currently receiving. Of course hunger and malnutrition are extremely important, but since development resources are always going to be stretched, proving that large gains are possible in any particular area isn’t sufficient to decide to allocate more to that area, or give it more attention in the SDG framework. In other words, your article is an excellent exposition of the probable benefits to increased investment in improving hunger and malnutrition, but “good economics” would require you to justify from where you believe those resources should be taken, and why?

    • Michael, thanks very much for your comment. One way to re-prioritize investments to end hunger and malnutrition is for governments to reduce subsidies on the production of staple grains (as well as water, electricity, and fertilizers). Those savings could then support the production of more nutrient-dense crops, including fruits and vegetables, via investments in R&D, improving the marketing chains of these more perishable crops.

      But increased investment is not the only answer. It is equally important to change policies. For example, it is essential to re-shape the agriculture sector for improved nutrition and health, but that can only occur if ministries of agriculture are made responsible for nutrition outcomes.

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