The sight of stacks of baladi bread piled high in market places is a common one in Egypt. This mainstay of Egyptian diets, while tasty, cheap and filling, provides calories but not necessary micronutrients. Millions of Egyptians suffer the effects of poor nutrition, including preventable miscarriages, birth defects and delayed physical and cognitive development. Iron and folic acid deficiencies lead to many health problems, most significantly anemia and neural tube defects in children which can be life-threatening and cause-life long disabilities.
Malnutrition remains arguably the world's most serious, but least addressed, global health issue. More than 2 billion people are impacted globally and more than 3.5 million young children die each year from lack of proper nutrition. For those that survive, inadequate nutrition during the early years of life has permanent and life-long consequences. Research shows that adequate maternal and child nutrition during the first 1,000 days -- from conception through year two -- shapes a child's physical and mental capabilities for their lifetime. We can't "go back" or address deficiencies later in life - damage done during this window is permanent.
For millions in Egypt, baladi bread is a critical part of daily sustenance; a key staple food that is deeply ingrained in the Egyptian culture. But what if this daily bread could not only satisfy hunger but also improve the cognitive and physical potential of the next generation?
That is indeed what is happening. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), World
Food Programme (WFP) and Egypt's Ministry of Social Solidarity are fortifying baladi bread with
micronutrients like iron and folic acid which are vital to a child's development. Millions of Egyptians are benefiting and this newly fortified baladi bread has the potential to protect entire generations. The government, global health community, businesses and civic organizations are all realizing that it is access to nutritious, quality food for the poor -- and not just access to quantities of food - that is critical.
The focus is no longer simply to eat, but to eat well. This is a factor which affects not only the poor, but increasingly the well off in every society. This past year, in the U.S., one in four children endured hunger and food insecurity. It is likely that the 17 million children who face hunger in this country will suffer life-long consequences as a result of having limited access to quality food. Without nutritious foods they are more likely to suffer from weak immune systems, colds, behavioral difficulties and impaired academic performance. Nutritious food, whether here, or Egypt, is fundamental to unlocking human potential.
While serious, malnutrition is entirely within our grasp to prevent. There are well-tested and cost-effective approaches common in rich countries, such as fortification with vitamins and minerals of staple crops and condiments, and ensuring pregnant mothers and babies six months and older have access to nutritious products. GAIN is working with hundreds of local companies to create nutritious products that are as varied as fortified flour in Africa, soy sauce in China and biscuits in India.
Nevertheless, today there remains a market failure in poor countries. Simply put, the majority of poor people do not have access to readily available and affordable nutritious food. For those children under two, who are most at risk from irreversible mental and physical damage from malnutrition, we need to stimulate business to produce affordable products that can make the difference for the rest of their lives.
Targeting these areas will promote innovation. It is innovation, like the fortified baladi bread reaching 52 million Egyptians every day, that will make the difference between surviving and thriving.
Follow Marc Van Ameringen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GAINExecDir