There are strong economic incentives for governments to invest in early childhood nutrition, reveals a new report from the University of Waterloo and Cornell University. Published for the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the report reveals that every dollar spent on nutrition during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life can provide a country up to $166 in future earnings.
“The returns on investments in nutrition have high benefit-cost ratios, especially in countries with higher income levels and a growing economy,” said co-author Dr. Susan Horton, of the School of Public Health and Health Systems and the Department of Economics at Waterloo.
Malnutrition is a widespread public health problem, affecting an estimated 350 million children globally. Children who are undernourished during the first 1,000 days of their lives typically show stunted growth patterns by the age of three and have poorer cognitive skills than their well-fed peers. As adults they are less educated, earn lower wages and have more health problems throughout their lives. According to current estimates, one in four children worldwide have stunted growth due to undernourishment; in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of all children under five are short for their age.
“Height-for-age is a much better measure of health than weight-for-age. It is also predictive of economic outcomes,” said Dr. Horton, who also serves as chair in global health economics at the Center for International Governance Innovation. “Good childhood nutrition produces people who can contribute more and help boost economic growth.”
Stunted growth as a measure of malnutrition
Analyses of a range of low- and middle-income countries suggest that 1 cm more of adult height for men is associated with an increase in their earnings of 2.4 per cent.
“Over an adult’s working life, we can expect that one dollar spent on early childhood nutrition will on average have $45 worth of benefits in low- and middle-income countries,” said Dr. Horton.
The paper looked at the effects of stunting on low and middle-income countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Yemen and India. The cost-benefit ratio was the greatest in Indonesia, where every dollar spent on early childhood nutrition could provide the country $166 in future earnings.
“It really is a compelling economic argument for nutrition interventions,” said Dr. Horton. “If we can reduce stunting through better early nutrition, we can improve quality of life not only for individuals, but nations as a whole.”
Currently, the World Health Organization is aiming to reduce stunting among children under age five by 40 percent as part of its 2025 nutrition goals, and it is widely expected that the rate of stunting will also be included in its Sustainable Development Goals, which will be announced in 2015.
In a related study in the U.S., researchers reported earlier this month that the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for pregnant and breastfeeding women and infants, is linked with stronger cognitive development and better test scores in childhood.