New study reveals alarming impact of food inflation on child undernutrition in low and middle-income countries
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A new study published in Nature Communications sheds light on the critical relationship between food inflation and child undernutrition in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). The study, conducted by Derek Headey and Marie Ruel of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), explores the impact of food price volatility on child health and nutrition, revealing important findings that call for immediate attention and intervention.
The 21st Century has witnessed significant fluctuations in food prices, with global price spikes occurring in 2007-08, 2010-11, and again in 2021-22. While the economic impacts of food inflation on poverty have been widely analyzed, no previous studies have explored the effects of food price increases on child undernutrition.
The study, which involved 1.27 million pre-school children from 44 developing countries, shows that, on average, a 5 percent increase in the real price of food in the past 3 months is associated with a 9 percent higher risk of wasting and a 14 percent higher risk of severe wasting among preschool children. These risks are especially pronounced in young infants, suggesting a prenatal pathway, as well as in older children (2-5 years of age) as diet quality deteriorates during periods of rising food prices. Male children and those from impoverished and landless rural households are disproportionately affected.
Furthermore, the research highlights that children who were exposed to food inflation during the prenatal period or sometime during their first two years of life were at greater risk of being stunted several years later when they were 2 to 5 years of age. These findings provide compelling evidence for the need to implement interventions aimed at preventing food inflation and mitigating its harmful impacts on mothers and children, both in the short and longer term.
Derek Headey, senior research fellow at IFPRI and co-author of the study, comments: “Food inflation may well be one of the foremost economic challenges of the 21st Century, particularly in light of climate change and conflict-related shocks. Our research underscores the critical importance of both preventing food price volatility and protecting vulnerable populations when price shocks do hit. We now know that food inflation significantly elevates the risk of undernutrition in early childhood, and that’s costly: for a child’s longer-term health, their brain development, and their productivity as working adults.”
The study’s implications are clear and urgent. The vulnerability of young children to food price shocks necessitates prioritizing support to pregnant women and young infants, as well as to asset-poor households, including landless households in rural areas who are often the poorest of the poor. The authors recommend that policy instruments such as cash transfers and nutritious food assistance programs should be used to help prevent undernutrition among women during pregnancy and children during the critical first 1000 days of life and that these programs should be designed to swiftly respond to inflation shocks. Additionally, strengthening nutrition surveillance and early warning systems, as well as programs to monitor and treat severe acute malnutrition, are essential in an era of increasing food price volatility and extreme weather events.
Moreover, the study emphasizes the need for aligning food policies, investments, and institutions with recommendations aimed at stabilizing food prices at national, regional, and global levels. These recommendations include increased investment in climate-smart agricultural research and development, innovative approaches to grain stocks management, rigorous regulation of biofuels policies, and adoption of more binding international trade rules such as stricter regulations on export restrictions.
“This research serves as a call to action for governments, policymakers, and international organizations to address the pressing issue of food inflation and its devastating impact on child nutrition in low and middle-income countries,” said Purnima Menon, Senior Director, Food and Nutrition Policy, CGIAR and IFPRI. “It is imperative that concerted efforts are made to protect the most vulnerable members of society and secure a healthier future for our children and for the next generations. We need renewed commitments from global and national actors now to be able to prevent the impacts of today’s crises on the future of humanity.”
For more information, please refer to the original research article:
Headey, D., Ruel, M. Food inflation and child undernutrition in low and middle-income countries. Nature Communications 14, 5761 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-41543-9
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) provides research-based policy solutions to sustainably reduce poverty and end hunger and malnutrition. IFPRI’s strategic research aims to identify and analyze alternative international and country-led strategies and policies for meeting food and nutrition needs in low- and middle-income countries, with particular emphasis on poor and vulnerable groups in those countries, gender equity, and sustainability. It is a research center of CGIAR, a worldwide partnership engaged in agricultural research for development. www.ifpri.org
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