Vitamin and mineral deficiencies have a significant impact on human welfare and on the economic development of communities and nations. These deficiencies can lead to serious health problems, including reduced resistance to infectious disease, blindness, lethargy, reduced learning capacity, mental retardation and, and in some cases, to death. Among the debilitating consequences of these dietary deficiencies is loss of human capital and worker productivity.
Unlike many other impediments to social and economic development, vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be reduced with relatively small investments in public health, agriculture and education. The technology is available to address many of these deficiencies. They persist for a variety of reasons, including insufficient awareness by policy makers of the importance of addressing them and insufficient understanding by program planners of either their consequences or the strategies available to combat them.
During the past few decades the research community, governments, development agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have made significant progress in identifying groups at greatest risk of micronutrient deficiencies and outlining programs to provide short-term alleviation of specific deficiencies. Several countries have adopted international goals and targets to reduce deficiencies by the end of this decade.
However, progress in promoting and implementing food-based strategies to achieve sustainable improvements in micronutrient status has generally been slow. These strategies focus on improving access to and availability and consumption of vitamin- and mineral-rich foods. Benefits of such food-based strategies include not only improved intakes of specific nutrients but also improved overall diet and health status.
Globally, the three deficiencies of greatest public health significance are those of vitamin A, iron and iodine. These nutrients are referred to as micronutrients because the body needs them in minute quantities for growth, development and maintenance.
Vitamin A deficiency is most common in young children. Untreated, it can lead to blindness and death. Iron deficiency is the most common dietary deficiency globally, affecting mostly children and women of childbearing age. It leads to anaemia, which contributes significantly to maternal and neonatal deaths. Iodine deficiency disorder occurs in mountainous and flood plain areas of the world where iodine has been washed away from soils. It is the most common cause of preventable mental retardation, including low IQ (intelligence quotient). Severe iodine deficiency can lead to cretinism, stillbirth and birth defects.
Since 1985, FAO has participated actively in defining and implementing programmes to reduce micronutrient malnutrition. FAO strongly supports the promotion of the production and consumption of micronutrient-rich foods as the sustainable solution to micronutrient deficiency problems. This activity clearly falls within the Organizationís mandate and overall strategy, which emphasises the relationship between nutrition and agriculture in order to ensure food security and to improve the health and nutritional status of all populations.