The effects of food prices on population health in developing countries

By Cyn-Young Park on Thu, 14 March 2013

Global food prices remain high and volatile since the peak during the global food crisis of 2008, exacerbating hunger and malnutrition around the world. High and increasing food prices can be an immediate threat to household food security, undermining population health, retarding human development, and lowering labor productivity for the economy in the long term. High volatility of food prices is an added concern, as heightened uncertainty may compromise sustainable and long-term consumption decisions of households, prolonging the situation of inadequate food-intake. 

Food security is a particular concern for the Asia-Pacific region. A recent FAO report estimates that globally, 868 million people are undernourished and 564 million, or 65 per cent of the total, live in countries of Asia and the Pacific. The problem is particularly acute among the poor and the socially vulnerable, namely women and children. Various reports point to maternal undernutrition as a leading cause of maternal and children under age 5 deaths. Inadequate food intake and unfavorable changes in the dietary patterns also affect the physical and mental development of children. In the short term, the effect is likely to be increased prevalence of stunting (low height for age), wasting (low weight for height) and other micronutrient deficiency disorders among children as well as increased chances of developing chronic diseases. In turn, these lead to an increase in child morbidity and mortality. The effect of malnutrition at young age may also impair proper mental development and learning ability, leading to reduced work productivity.

Understanding the food crisis effect on nutrition, health and poverty is therefore critical for the development of public policies and social programs to help the vulnerable groups. An accurate assessment is needed to help target the assistance, monitor the progress and evaluate the effect of the policies and programs.

While the food crisis effect on nutrition and health draws much policy attention, empirical estimates for the impact of the food price increases on nutrition and health remain scarce. Instead, many of these studies have relied on conceptual representations to explain how high food prices could affect nutrition and health condition. A new paper I co-authored with S. Lee, J.Y. Lim, and H.H. Lee investigates the link between food prices and health and assess the effects of food prices on population health.

Using a panel regression model, we tried to capture the effects of food price inflation and volatility on population health in developing countries proxied by infant mortality, child mortality, and prevalence of undernourishment. Our dataset covered 63 developing countries with 10 years observations from 2001 to 2010. Empirical findings are clear. High and volatile food prices have a significant and adverse effect on infant mortality, child mortality, and prevalence of undernourishment in developing countries. Furthermore, the impact of food prices is greater in the least developed countries (LDCs). 

Good nutrition and health are essential for improving productivity and economic growth and reducing poverty. In particular, adequate nutrition provision at young ages is a promise for the future, not only of the individuals but also of the society and the nation. 

Much can, and should, be done at domestic, regional, and global levels. The governments can play an important role in improving population health in developing countries by taking the lead in developing effective national health systems and strengthening investment in public health. Our findings are also supportive, as government health expenditure per capita has a negative relationship with infant mortality, child mortality, and prevalence of undernourishment. At the same time, further efforts need to be made to enhance food security by reducing poverty incidence and maintaining stable and affordable prices of food.