THE BLOG

Stopping Malnutrition's Assault on Our Health and Economy

04/16/2015 10:14 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

By Doug Bereuter and Dan Glickman

What would happen if we could solve a condition that affects more than one in four people on the planet and not only stunts development but leads to heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers? This condition is implicated in the deaths of 3.1 million children under 5 years old each year. And it assaults not only our health but our economy: It costs most countries 4 to 9 percent of their GDP, and by 2030 it will cost businesses $35 trillion in lost labor and productivity.

Well, the condition is malnutrition. And a big part of the solution is more-healthful food.

Our governments and businesses cannot afford this burden, and our consciences should not tolerate its human costs. It is time to use the biggest tool at our disposal -- the multitrillion-dollar global agriculture and food sector -- to increase the quality, not just the quantity, of our food and give billions more people access to the nutrients they need to thrive. A new Chicago Council on Global Affairs study says that the United States -- with its world-renowned agrifood businesses and universities and the power of its assistance and example -- should lead the way.

We can start by reforming our policies at home. Historically, U.S. federal farm programs have largely subsidized row crops, but decisions about subsidies have not always been informed by nutritional needs. Legislation passed in 2012 made government support for the farm sector more market-based, but we need to reform the system further to ensure that it has the flexibility to cater to changing consumer tastes and desires to improve their diets.

The battle against malnutrition also must be waged in the scientific laboratories of our universities and businesses. We are bombarded with confusing information on nutrition because the science is woefully limited and always evolving. We need more authoritative research to determine how people digest and metabolize food and how to encourage people to make healthier choices. On the food production side, science can help increase the production of nutritious foods and make sure they are brought to market and sold at an affordable price. In the process, we cannot be afraid of using modern technologies that science has found to be safe, including biotechnology.

The U.S. government also should make it easier for industry to improve the safety of our food supply and extend the shelf-life of nutrient-rich foods. Right now, countries' differing food standards can inhibit trade, and within many countries it is difficult to transport perishable foods from farm to market because of grossly inadequate infrastructure. These hurdles are preventing many U.S. companies from doing business in Asia and Africa -- a missed opportunity, given that economists expect these regions to become the world's largest food markets. North Asia has been the biggest U.S. food market since 2012, and the African agriculture and food sector is expected to reach a value of $1 trillion by 2030. The U.S. government should work with countries in these regions to harmonize agriculture and food standards through trade capacity building. We also can partner with international organizations to build out sorely insufficient infrastructure. Progress in these areas will advance the bottom lines of businesses and people's health.

Finally, even if nutritious foods are affordable and abundant, it will make no difference unless people eat them. Research can help us understand why people eat the way they do, but the U.S. Congress should establish a commission to bring together policy, business, and research leaders from across sectors to put together a market-based roadmap to improving nutrition both at home and abroad. This commission should harness the power of consumer demand and the innovation of business while recognizing the enabling role government can play.

These steps may seem simple, but taken together they would revolutionize the way we eat, ease malnutrition's financial burden, and literally improve the human condition. And for those who question whether market realities might derail such efforts, we point to the growing appetite for fruits and vegetables -- estimated to be a $2.3-trillion global market by 2017 -- and the cost savings to be gained through breakthroughs in technology.

We can save lives and roll back the multitrillion-dollar burden to taxpayers and businesses caused by malnutrition by making more-healthful food available to more people. Leveraging the ingenuity of the food and farm sector is one of the most essential steps.

Doug Bereuter is President Emeritus of The Asia Foundation, and Dan Glickman was Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001. The authors are co-chairs of a task force on food and nutrition launched by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The task force's report, Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Leveraging Agriculture and Food to Improve Global Nutrition, was released today.