Do rice prices affect malnutrition in the poor?

 Debbie Templeton   |  
(Photo: Ariel Javellana)

(Photo: Ariel Javellana)

At least 840 million people worldwide do not have enough food to meet their daily energy needs. In addition, more than three times this number—including many who do have enough food to avert day-to-day hunger—suffer from micronutrient deficiencies because their staple foods contain negligible amounts of essential micronutrients such as zinc, iron, iodine, and vitamin A.

Micronutrient deficiency results in low cognitive development and increased susceptibility to disease, and contributes to maternal mortality during childbirth. The enormity of this problem is staggering, with large numbers of women and children in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and South and Southeast Asia at high risk. For example, over half of all women and children in South and Southeast Asia suffer from anemia, to which iron deficiency is a major contributor, and malnutrition-based disease contributes to more than half the deaths of children below preschool age.

The basic cause of malnutrition is poverty because the poor lack the resources to produce or purchase nutrient-dense foods such as meat, fruit, and vegetables. In turn, malnutrition perpetuates poverty as it directly reduces the productive ability of those afflicted.

Rice is the staple food of around half the world’s population, providing 50–80% of the energy intake of the poor in South and Southeast Asian countries. Rice therefore offers a tremendous opportunity for breaking the savage poverty-malnutrition cycle. While the relative benefits of nutritional supplement and fortification programs and of biofortification of the rice grain (developing varieties that contain increased levels of micronutrients) are well documented, little research has explicitly examined the link between the price of rice and the nutritional status of rice producers and consumers.

We know that the decline in the inflation-adjusted price of rice due to productivity gains was the major contributing factor behind the progress in poverty reduction in Asia over the last two decades (see Do on lower rice prices help the poor? page 37 of Rice Today Vol. 4, No. 2). We also know that a large share of the income of poor households in Asia is used to purchase food, with the greatest proportion going toward the purchase of rice. The ability of a household to purchase food depends on income and on the price of food. Therefore, if households respond to a change in the price of rice by reducing the quantity or changing the composition of their total food basket, the household’s nutritional status could be affected.

Between 1992 and 2000, the Nutritional Surveillance Project collected data on more than 81,000 rural Bangladeshi children aged 6–59 months. These data were used to examine the association between household rice expenditure and child nutritional status.1 An analysis of the relationship between the price of rice and the number of children found to be underweight indicated that, while rice consumption remained fairly static, expenditure on rice increased with price rises, leaving less income to purchase the nonrice foods that would deliver the vitamins and minerals essential for healthy growth. Furthermore, higher rice prices are correlated with the number of underweight children aged 6–59 months.

The major implication of this study is that factors that lead to a fall in the price of rice can have a positive impact on both poverty levels and the nutritional well-being of children because not only will they have more to eat, their diets will also contain a higher proportion of nutrient-rich foods. At the same time, lower rice prices must be accompanied by strategies to help rice-farming families who may be adversely affected (also see Do lower rice prices help the poor?).

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Debbie Templeton is an economic impact specialist of IRRI Social Sciences Division.

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