World Food Day (October 16) is a good day to discuss why Myanmar needs to invest more but also differently in improving nutrition.
One out of three households in Myanmar suffers from hunger. Not surprisingly, the percentage of kids under five years old that are too short for their age, is still very high: 27 percent on average. Not only do many people eat too little, they also eat the same foods day in and day out. They therefore lack a lot of the necessary nutrients for being healthy. For instance, still 30 percent of Myanmar women, between 15 and 49 years old, suffers from iron deficiency (anemia). They feel tired and weak and, in more severe cases, become seriously ill. It is clear that these forms of malnutrition need continuous and increasing amounts of public investments. Better nutrition improves health, but it also contributes to better school results, less poverty, lower public health costs, and even increased labour productivity and a higher Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Still, too little food and too little nutrients are not the only problems that Myanmar people are facing. With changing diets and lifestyles, new forms of malnutrition are on the rise. Whereas in Yangon stunting among children under five years old, is lower than average, overweight and obesity figures are increasing. The recently published Atlas of Childhood Obesity, predicts that Myanmar will be among the 42 countries globally with over 1 million obese school-age children and youth in 2030. This is comparable to childhood obesity in more mature food markets in the United Kingdom and Germany. Childhood obesity can cause early death and disability at a later age. It also increases the chances of certain types of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Businesses are the missing link in Myanmar in the fight against malnutrition. It is time for action and businesses should play a much more important role in this. Almost all the food that people consume is produced by business: from farmers to multi-national companies and from street vendors to retailers and restaurants. Food businesses impact the affordability, accessibility, availability and desirability of healthy, and of unhealthy foods.
While it is in the interest of governments and civil society organisations, to improve public health through nutrition, it is in the interest of companies to invest in nutrition, reformulate existing products or produce new healthy products. Why is this? In the next ten years, the demand for healthy and safe food will go up in Myanmar, companies will need to comply with stricter food laws and policies, sustainability will become an added-value for customers and for the financial sector (investors and banks), and a healthier workforce is needed to increase productivity and reduce operational costs.
The Myanmar government can and should speed up the fight against malnutrition by creating the conditions for companies to act. For instance, by developing clear policies for food standards, food safety conditions, labelling, marketing policies for adults and children, and for health and nutrition standards in the workplace, including the promotion of breastfeeding for working moms.
Only through working together with private, public and not-for-profit players, will Myanmar be a victor in the malnutrition fight.