Childhood stunting costs billions in lost productivity each year

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags child development Children stunting

Childhood stunting costs low-to-middle income countries (LMICs) up to 1.2% of their annual gross domestic product (GDP), and could be cheaply remedied via nutritional shifts, according to research published in Lancet e-Clinical Medicine.

Under-nutrition and malnutrition-provoked childhood stunting often leads to cognitive impairment and lower educational attainment which then frequently impacts workplace productivity, with women faring worse than men, the researchers found.

Workers in Ethiopia, for example, lose 18% of their adult salaries due to childhood stunting.

Simon Bishop, CEO of UK-based child-focused NGO, The Power of Nutrition, which helped fund the study, said it was, “a wake-up call for businesses in low- and middle-income countries – and beyond.”

“We already know stunting is a life-sentence for impacted individuals. This new data shows it is also a huge cost to business and economies due to lost productivity and consumer spending power. Tackling stunting should be a leading priority for business, to transform lives as well as profits.”

Private-public partnership potential

The researchers suggested governments and the private sector could do more to deliver the kind of nutritional interventions that could make a difference to the 149 million children suffering from childhood stunting globally, 91% of whom live in LMICs.

The private sector substantially shapes food systems, supply chains, and populations’ diet globally,” ​they wrote. “Prevention of childhood malnutrition by food and agricultural sectors will require investment to integrate smallholder farms into global supply chains, improve quality assurance and food distribution, food fortification, promote sustainable practices to reduce food waste and build nutrition science capacity within LMICs.

“Moreover, engagement in advocacy for nutrition-friendly trade policies, use of social business models, and innovative use of existing technologies represent promising strategies to engage the private sector.”

The cost of childhood stunting

Stunting-linked yearly productivity losses are estimated at $200 billion (£166bn) in East Asia; $36bn (£30bn) in Latin America and the Caribbean; $28bn (£23bn) in South Asia and $15bn (£12.5bn) in sub-Saharan Africa.

China, Peru, India, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand were the worst affected nations.

Nutritional interventions were found to be cost-effective and efficacious ways of tackling the problem. A $1 (£0.83) investment in stunting reduction programmes could yield $81 (£67) for national economies.

“Ensuring alignment between private sector direct and indirect nutrition interventions and national priorities, policies, and programs is necessary,” ​wrote the researchers who were led by Nadia Akseer, CEO of Modern Scientist Global.

“This study uses big data and cutting-edge AI methodologies to fill an important knowledge gap,”​ she said.

“By evidencing the true cost of stunting to business, this new data will be crucial in catalysing investment in nutrition and bringing more stakeholders to the table.”

The research produced estimates for 120-plus LMICs, analysing data from more than 71,000 private firms, seven longitudinal birth cohorts, and global data repositories and published literature.

The research project was supported by DSM, Kellogg’s, Olam International, Otsuka, PVH Corp, Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, the World Bank, and the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation.

The Power of Nutrition is involved in 19 programmes tackling malnutrition in LMICs that reach 92 million women, children and adolescents.

Childhood stunting is typically caused by nutritional deficiencies that occur during a child’s first 1000 days – the time from conception to when they are roughly 2.5 years old.

Typical deficiencies include vitamin A, iron, iodine and zinc.

Source: Lancete-Clinical Medicine

Published online:

‘Economic costs of childhood stunting to the private sector in low- and middle-income countries’

Authors: Nadia Akseer et al.

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