New Delhi: Five fast-growing economic powerhouses—Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Mexico—are home to half of the world’s hungry and hold the key to reducing global malnutrition, says a report released on Wednesday by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a Washington-based global think tank.

The number of people afflicted with hunger in these middle-income countries is 363 million and governments need to redraw existing food systems to effectively combat it, says the Global Food Policy Report.

The report observed that reduction in open defecation can contribute significantly to lowering the number of malnourished children. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has embarked on an ambitious Swachh Bharat sanitation drive that envisages building 120 million toilets over five years and ending open defecation by 2019.

The IFPRI report also includes a perception survey of more than 1,000 respondents (most work with non-governmental organizations or in academia or the government) across 55 countries that shows dissatisfaction with food policies. While 46% believed that the world has the means to end hunger, only 13% believed that hunger “will" be eliminated.

Younger people—under 30 years of age—were more pessimistic: only 8% believed global hunger can be eliminated by 2025; policymakers were more optimistic, with 48% believing global hunger will be eliminated in a decade.

“Hunger and malnutrition are not problems exclusive to low-income countries. Middle-income countries, despite some being global economic powerhouses, are home to the majority of the world’s hungry and malnourished. These vulnerable populations, the ‘missing middle’, tend not to either benefit from or contribute to the rapid economic growth that is characteristic of many middle-income countries," the report noted.

“In countries such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Mexico, despite the progress that has been made in reducing the number of those chronically hungry, there remains a potential threat to sustained, inclusive growth," it added.

Among the five countries, India fares the worst in child and overall undernourishment—47.9% of children are stunted in India compared to 7.1% in Brazil, 9.4% in China, 14% in Mexico and 35.6% in Indonesia.

On the flip side, the incidence of obesity is highest in Mexico—69% of its population is overweight compared to 11% in India, 21% in Indonesia, 25% in China and 54% in Brazil, .

The report listed rising inequality, urbanization, changing diets, lack of focus on nutrition and poor targeting in social safety nets as key factors characterizing the food-security situation in the five middle-income countries.

Such nations should increase incentives to produce, process and market high-nutrient foods and reduce distorted incentives to produce just low-nutrient staple foods, the report suggested. For faster improvements in nutrition, the report advocated that investments in nutrition-specific interventions (such as micronutrient supplementation) be combined with investments in nutrition-sensitive interventions (such as biofortification).

For instance, by fortifying powdered milk with micronutrients, including iron, Chile reduced the prevalence of anaemia by around 80% in less than three years, it said.

The report further recommended that these countries work towards reducing inequalities with a focus on gender, improving rural infrastructure to boost the non-farm sector, scaling up better targeted social safety nets, and exchanging innovative ideas.

India’s National Food Security Act, which aims to provide subsidized food to 67% of the country’s population, found mention in the report, which noted that “the question remains how to manage the programme better and target it more closely to the neediest people in order to reduce the overall cost and ensure that it promotes good nutrition".

The report lauded the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, a scheme to help 75 million of the country’s poor households open bank accounts.

“Although the accounts would start with a zero balance, they represent a first step in increasing poor people’s participation in the financial system," the report said.

Sanitation is a top global priority, the report observed and commended India’s policy emphasis on ending open defecation.

“Ending open defecation is near the top of the world’s post-2015 goals for sustainable development," it said. “This is particularly true for India—a country where half of all children are stunted and a country home to half of the world’s population of the one billion people worldwide who...defecate in the open. India has made the rapid elimination of open defecation a policy priority."

The report cited the case of Bangladesh, where dramatic reductions in open defecation contributed to large declines in the number of stunted children. The research found that Bangladeshi children living in places where open defecation had been reduced were taller than children in neighbouring West Bengal where open defecation is still common, even at the same levels of economic wealth.

“It has become clear that the factors that influence people’s nutrition go well beyond food and agriculture to include drinking water and sanitation, the role of women, the qual­ity of caregiving, among others," said Shenggen Fan, director general of IFPRI.

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