During November, Poverty Week will see over 70 national broadcasters run a series of films on the theme of "Why Poverty?" The event is designed to trigger a broader debate about the causes of poverty and what can and should be done to counter it. The good news is that we have reached a defining moment in the fight against poverty: we have begun to realise the massive contribution that nutrition can make. And this contribution looks set to be transformed by the "game changer" in the fight against poverty: fortified rice.
Micronutrients and poverty
At least 2 billion people around the world still lack the nutrients they need to live healthy, active and economically productive lives, even if they have access to enough calories to survive. The effects of this 'hidden hunger' are rife in the developing world, where poverty and poor nutrition are a devastating combination, locking generations into a downward spiral of stunting, poor health and economic hardship.
When you look at the root cause of the hidden hunger problem, lack of iron, vitamin A and zinc are most often to blame. Vitamin A deficiency is, for example, responsible for 1.2 million children going blind every year: overall, vitamin deficiencies lead to stunted growth in children, negatively affecting the development of body and mind.
As the Copenhagen Consensus 2012 Expert Panel of top global economists has consistently argued, the single best investment that can be made in terms of global health and development are 'bundled micronutrient interventions'. The thinking is quite straightforward: the better people's nutrition; the healthier and more productive they are, and the less strain there is on healthcare systems. The estimate is a 17-fold return on every dollar spent.
Partnerships: the key to progress
Over the past few years, we have seen a fundamental shift in the recognition of the importance of nutrition to health and poverty. We have seen a number of major and complementary initiatives all focused on harnessing the power of nutrition, including the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), the United Nation's Scale-Up-Nutrition (SUN) Framework, and new public private partnerships (PPP), like the one of my company with the United Nation's World Food Programme or PPP projects like Project Laser Beam, or the Amsterdam Initiative on Malnutrition.
Real progress has been made, and central to this has been the willingness of the development community to draw on the private sector's expertise and technology. My company has worked very closely with the World Food Programme (WFP), developing nutrition products that are tailored to the needs of particular population groups, and helping WFP to further develop their nutrition strategy. To date, 12 million people have benefited from this partnership, but what is really exciting is that this is just the beginning. We are now working to dramatically scale to ultimately cover hundreds, rather than tens of millions of people.
Fortified rice - the game changer
I've spent a lot of time travelling in Africa and Asia - so I know just how essential rice is to the diets of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world. As the world's most important staple, rice is eaten by 2 billion people virtually every day, making up 20% of the planet's caloric intake. In the main rice consuming regions, that figure is much higher - up to 70%. However, rice in its basic form consists essentially of carbohydrates, delivering calories, but not the major micronutrients that are essential for good health. It is no surprise therefore that a large number of these regions also suffer from 'hidden hunger'.
However, if we can find a way to fortify the rice eaten around the world to ensure it contains the necessary vitamins and minerals, this could be a game-changer in terms of health care and poverty.
Can it be done?
Speaking from the industry perspective, fortification of rice is not straightforward. In order to work, it is essential that the micronutrients are retained after the rice is washed and cooked, without affecting taste. This takes advanced technology, but it can be done.
There are also costs involved in fortification, but these are very modest - the additional cost of fortification for rice is around 2-5% of the current price. This cost is far outweighed by increased productivity and reduced healthcare costs.
The key to realising the massive potential of rice fortification from my perspective is not, however, technology or resources: it is the need to bring together the expertise, knowledge and resources of public bodies, NGOs and the private sector, and it is about creating an effective, sustainable approach to rice fortification, backed up by the right supply chains and longer term, market-based solutions.
The good news, and a real cause for optimism, is that the WFP is currently working on a strategic approach to rice fortification, which my company is supporting as a partner. Earlier this year, DSM dedicated USD 1 million to World Food Programme nutrition activities in Asia. The USD 1 million, which will support rice fortification policy and programme development, will also include an in-kind donation of fortified rice, containing essential micronutrients which can be mixed in with regular rice, with no change to taste or color. But this is just the beginning - far more can and will be done to turn rice into a solution for malnutrition in the developing world.
The answer to the question is therefore a clear yes; it can be done. We have the opportunity to turn the world's staple food into a "game changer" to help solve malnutrition and as a consequence poor health and poverty. It's a very exciting opportunity, and one that we must seize.