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Using Brazil’s experience to improve nutrition worldwide

At a time when one billion people across the world don’t have enough food and a further one billion lack the essential nutrients in their diet to be healthy, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is working to shift the international approach to tackling hunger. The organization is now headed by José Graziano da Silva, a Brazilian who was in charge of his country’s Fome Zero (‘zero hunger’) campaign.

Through Fome Zero, Brazil managed to reduce stunting among children by 1.9% each year and cut the number of underweight people by 0.7% annually (between 1986 and 1996). But the initiative didn’t only improve the amount of food eaten by poor Brazilians. It also recognized the damage caused by malnourishment from diets which did not contain all the micro-nutrients needed for people to be healthy. Sometimes called the “hidden hunger”, a lack of essential vitamins and minerals can be just as devastating to a child’s health as a diet without enough calories

A recent article in The Economist highlights how worldwide, an estimated 160 million children suffer from a deficiency in vitamin A. This leads to one million dying due to weak immune systems and another half a million going blind every year. Anaemia – resulting from a lack of iron – is believed to affect nearly half of children in developing countries. And iodine deficiency among mothers is thought to cause 18 million babies to be born with some form of mental impairment each year.

Brazil’s Fome Zero incorporated 90 different programmes (across 19 ministries) to tackle a whole range of nutrition issues among the country’s poor. As well as providing cash-transfer schemes so the poorest could purchase extra food, emphasis was also placed on farming and irrigation projects to help small-holders diversify their crops. By providing young children with regular fresh fruit or vegetables, the nutritional value of their diet can be boosted significantly.

As the Economist points out, any funding which goes towards improving nutrition is a “stunningly good investment”. Vitamin and food supplements are cheap and the benefits easily quantifiable. For example, providing pregnant women with extra iron has been found to generate a return of 6-14 dollars for every dollar spent, thanks to a healthier generation of children. The journal therefore welcomes the appointment of Mr Graziano as the FAO’s new leader, believing he will lead a broad-based campaign to fight malnutrition on all fronts. Brazil has shown what’s possible. Now other countries can hopefully be encouraged to follow its lead.

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