Monotonous mainly staple diets that are high in calories but low in micronutrients and other essential dietary elements including fats and proteins, are not sufficient for a healthy and productive life. Micronutrients, namely vitamins and minerals found in natural, processed and fortified foods, are essential for normal growth and development. Food must therefore be adequate, not only in quantity, but also in quality in terms of variety, diversity, nutrient content and safety of foods.
People of all population groups in all regions of the world are affected by micronutrient deficiencies with about two billion people today deficient in one or more micronutrient. However, the most widespread and severe forms of micronutrient malnutrition are usually found in developing countries among poor subsistence farmers, especially in children, pregnant women and the sick who are more vulnerable given their peculiar nutritional requirements.
Micronutrients deficiencies, also referred to as “hidden hunger”, are closely related to poverty, poor diets and undeveloped agriculture, all of which have significant impacts on human welfare and on the economic development of communities and of nations. Poorly nourished children cannot grow and develop fully, resist infections and learn to their full potential. Malnourished adults have a reduced capacity to do work and suffer increased sickness, resulting in increased absenteeism and lost incomes. At each stage of the lifecycle, malnutrition “trickles down” to successive stages and/or generations. This translates into an aggregate loss of productivity and of human capital, a decline in household incomes and an increase of health expenditures, thus making good nutrition both a precondition for as well as an objective of development and of wellbeing.
Globally, the three micronutrient deficiencies of greatest public health significance are vitamin A, iron and iodine. Vitamin A deficiency, most common in young children, can lead to blindness and death. Iron deficiency, affecting mostly children and women of childbearing age, leads to anaemia which is significantly correlated to maternal and neonatal deaths. Iodine deficiency disorder is the most common cause of preventable mental retardation and, in its severe form, it can lead to cretinism, stillbirth and birth defects.
By supporting a people-centered food-based approach to improve nutrition, FAO aims to address micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries by increasing the availability to, and the access and consumption of an adequate and varied diet. This multi-sector approach includes promoting the production of micronutrient-rich foods, dietary diversification, improved processing, preservation and preparation techniques, consumer education and, where appropriate, food fortification, which together are considered to be sustainable, long term and cost-effective solutions for combating micronutrient malnutrition.
The negative effects of prolonged underinvestment in nutrition, food and agriculture, climate change, the recent food price crisis and the economic downturn are among the challenges to be urgently addressed in order to improve nutrition. FAO, in accordance with governments, international agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors, is committed to placing nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food-based strategies for combating micronutrient malnutrition high on the development policy agenda.