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LATIN AMERICA: Food Price Inflation Threatens Children

Daniela Estrada* - Tierramérica

SANTIAGO, May 14 2008 (IPS) - Child malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean will be aggravated by global food shortages, even though the region produces much more food than it consumes, say experts and officials.

Children in Colombia Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

Children in Colombia Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

“In the eradication of childhood malnutrition, the future of the countries is at stake. The most important challenge is pregnant mothers and children under three. That is where our efforts must be focused. The rest is cosmetic,” Dr. Eduardo Atalah, assistant director of the nutrition department at the University of Chile’s medical school, told Tierramérica.

General malnutrition (underweight for one’s age) and chronic malnutrition (under height for age) in particular can have irreversible physical and intellectual effects on children.

Prices of staple foods like maize, wheat, rice and beans in some cases have risen more than 100 percent, creating the worst food crisis in recent years for Latin America and the world, according to the World Food Programme.

Seven percent of children under five suffer from general malnutrition and 16 percent from chronic malnutrition, which is the equivalent of about nine million boys and girls in the region, according to studies from 2006. But those figures could worsen dramatically as a result of the current food crisis.

Soon 32 percent of children under five – some 18 million – in the region could suffer from chronic malnutrition, while 50 percent of children under two are anaemic, according to the final declaration of the May 5-6 conference “Towards the Eradication of Childhood Malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean” organised in Santiago by the Chilean government and the WFP.

The experts agreed that fighting the problem requires a multi-pronged approach: in addition to direct intervention in maternal-child nutrition, improvements in education, housing and the provision of piped water are also needed.

Government response needs to be multifaceted, ranging from incentives for food production and transparency in the marketing of foods to the establishment of mechanisms of social protection, such as conditional cash transfers, said the experts.

The experience of Chile, where the chronic malnutrition rate is 1.3 percent, shows that it is possible to eradicate the problem through ongoing policies – efforts that are not abandoned during political or economic crises.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has warned that 10 to 15 million more Latin Americans could fall into poverty as a result of food price inflation.

“It is likely that malnutrition will increase in those countries that lack strong social protection networks,” Juan Rivera, of Mexico’s National Public Health Institute, told Tierramérica.

Rivera was one of the three Latin American experts who participated in research on global childhood malnutrition, the results of which were published in the British medical journal “The Lancet”.

The study identified three major interventions that were successful at a relatively low cost. The first was the promotion of exclusively breastfeeding babies for the first six months, and continuing to nurse until age one.

The second was the distribution of foods enriched with micronutrients – like iron, zinc and folic acid – to children ages six months to two years, and vitamin A and zinc capsules.

The indispensable programmes are those that “monitor the growth and development of minors from gestation to age five,” said Atalah, who added that public institutions should regularly weigh and measure children, evaluate their nutritional status and give mothers the information they need to ensure that their children receive an adequate diet.

Atalah is one of the authors of an ECLAC study on best practices in Latin American nutrition policies towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, presented at the Santiago conference.

The current food crisis is likely to undermine efforts towards meeting the first of the eight goals established by the United Nations in 2000: cutting in half the number of people living in extreme poverty and suffering hunger by the year 2015, from 1990 levels.

The achievement of that goal requires halving the proportion of children under five with general malnutrition, though because of its greater prevalence and seriousness, chronic malnutrition is used as an indicator by the countries of Latin America.

This is an ethical imperative for the region, given that its food production surpasses the calorie requirements of its total population by 30 percent. In addition, this year the region will have seen six consecutive years of economic growth, which has meant extraordinary wealth in several countries.

According to Atalah, most countries do not have updated, representative information to reliably evaluate their progress towards reducing chronic malnutrition, though trends indicate that some may indeed meet the goal. Guatemala has the worst rates, with malnutrition standing at about 50 percent.

Childhood malnutrition hurts national productivity because it means lower school attendance and a reduced workforce resulting from higher mortality rates – without even counting the additional health costs.

A study published by ECLAC and the WFP last year shows that in 2004 alone, childhood malnutrition cost the economies of Central America and the Dominican Republic 6.7 billion dollars, or 6.4 percent of their combined gross domestic product.

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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