A move away from ‘grain fundamentalism’ to higher quality milk, meat and egg calories to fight malnutrition

Derek Headey, a senior research fellow at the CGIAR’s International Food Policy Research Institute, yesterday published an opinion piece in The Telegraph on the importance of using milk, meat and eggs to fight malnutrition and stunting in the developing world. But, Headey warns, these ‘animal-sourced foods’, particularly fresh milk and eggs, are prohibitively expensive for poor households.

When poorly nourished children in developing countries fall behind in their physical growth and become stunted relative to their healthier peers, they tend to fall behind in a lot of other things too: their health, cognitive development, schooling, and eventually, their productivity and income as adults.

The high social and economic costs mean that there are high returns to preventing stunting, provided these actions happen early.

‘In poor countries most growth faltering takes place from six months of age until a child’s second birthday. . . .

‘When children are fed well and protected from infections their bodies and minds develop quickly in infancy; but when these conditions aren’t met, they fall behind and may never catch up to their healthier peers, physically, socially or economically.

But getting sufficient nutrients into a baby’s growing body is not easy for poor households.

‘. . . In poor countries, the standard household diet that infants are introduced to from six months of age onwards is often nutrient-sparse: mashed-up rice, roots or tubers, or perhaps a watery porridge made of local grains. The solution is getting parents to feed their children more nutrient-dense foods.

‘Animal-sourced foods—or ASFs—fit that bill, being rich in high-quality protein, essential fatty acids, multiple micronutrients as well as more mysterious growth-promoters, like the insulin-like growth factor 1 found in cow’s milk.

‘Recent studies from the Advancing Research on Nutrition and Agriculture (ARENA) project suggest that there are significant benefits to giving children more animal-sourced foods . . . .

‘The bad news, however, is that animal sourced foods aren’t a low hanging fruit. Specifically, the AJAE study looked at why only around half of African and South Asian children are fed any ASF on a daily basis.

Findings reveal that the calories obtained from nutrient-rich ASFs like eggs and dairy are much, much, much more expensive than calories from basic staples.

Egg calories in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are roughly 10 times as expensive as cereal-based calories, while fresh milk is 15 times as expensive.

‘Meat and fish are generally cheaper than eggs and fresh milk because the former is tradeable over long distances—but still five or six times as expensive as cereal-based calories.

‘Understandably, then, poor households that prioritise getting enough calories to stave off hunger often find it prohibitively expensive to diversify away from starchy cereals to buy the nutrient-dense animal sourced foods that their children desperately need to achieve full physical and cognitive potential.’

The solution, then, seems clear: invest more in the productivity of the livestock and fisheries sectors wherever feasible, and use imports when local production isn’t viable.

In most countries, however, this means moving away from grain fundamentalism; that is, from agricultural policies heavily biased towards cereals at the expense of more nutrient-rich foods.

There are plenty of calories in the world; what poor people need now is higher quality calories at more affordable prices.

Derek Headey is a senior research fellow in the Poverty, Health and Nutrition division at the International Food Policy Research Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

Read the whole opinion piece by Derek Headey: Animal-sourced foods vital to combating malnutrition and stunting in the developing world, The Telegraph14 Nov 2018.

See also this related recent IFPRI news
Milk consumption reduces childhood stunting in Bangladesh, says IFPRI study, Financial Express (Bangladesh), 27 Aug 2018.
From IFPRI News: ‘Bangladesh’s Financial Express published a news feature detailing the low levels of per capita milk consumption in the country due to severe land constraints and a historical unavailability of milk.  Evidence from IFPRI researcher Derek Headey’s study concluded that milk consumption during the first 1,000 days of an infant’s life reduces stunting by as much as 10.4 percent.  Childhood nutriton is associated with 3.1 million childhood deaths, as well as cognitive and physical impairments–a major constraint to economic development. Headey’s research was also credited in The Daily SunNew Age Bangladesh, and The Independent.’

About IFPRI’s ARENA project
Advancing Research on Nutrition and Agriculture (ARENA) is 3-year, multi-country project in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and implemented from 2014 through 2017. The objective of ARENA is to close important knowledge gaps on the links between nutrition and agriculture, with a particular focus on conducting policy-relevant research at scale and crowding in more research on this issue by creating data sets and analytical tools that can benefit the broader research community. Research under this project includes studies on the impacts of rice productivity growth on child nutrition in Bangladesh, on the impacts of climate shocks on nutrition in Nepal and Ethiopia, on health and undernutrition risks associated with livestock ownership in Ethiopia, and on a multi-country study of the drivers of dietary change, among other areas.