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Time for new nutrition action in Myanmar

19th November, 2019

Author: Marije Boomsma, Senior Strategy Consultant, Sustainable Business & Partnerships (Myanmar)

In just 10 years’ time, Myanmar will have more than 1 million obese kids

Every day, one out of three households in Myanmar suffers from hunger. Not surprisingly, the percentage of kids under five years old that are too short for their age is still very high: 27% on average. Not only do many people eat too little, they also eat the same foods day in and day out. They therefore lack a lot of the necessary nutrients for being healthy. For instance, 30% of women in Myanmar aged between 15 and 49 years old, suffer from iron deficiency (anaemia). They feel tired and weak and, in more severe cases, become seriously ill. It is clear that these forms of malnutrition need continuous and increasing amounts of public investments. Better nutrition improves health, but it also contributes to better school results, less poverty, lower public health costs, and even increased labour productivity and a higher Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Still, too little food and too little nutrients are not the only problems that the people of Myanmar are facing. With changing diets and lifestyles, new forms of malnutrition are on the rise. Whereas in Yangon stunting among children under five years old is lower than average, overweight and obesity figures are increasing. The recently published Atlas of Childhood Obesity, predicts that Myanmar will be among the 42 countries globally with over 1 million obese school-aged children and youth in 2030. This is comparable to childhood obesity in more mature food markets such as the United Kingdom and Germany. Childhood obesity can cause early death and disability at a later age and it also increases the chances of certain types of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Businesses are the missing link in the fight against malnutrition in Myanmar. It is time for action and businesses should play a much more important role in this. Almost all the food that people consume is produced by business: from farmers to multi-national companies and from street vendors to retailers and restaurants. Food businesses impact the affordability, accessibility, availability and desirability of healthy, and of unhealthy foods.

While it is in the interest of governments and civil society organisations to improve public health through nutrition, it is in the interest of companies to invest in nutrition, reformulate existing products or produce new healthy products. Why is this? In the next ten years, the demand for healthy and safe food will increase in Myanmar, companies will need to comply with stricter food laws and policies, sustainability will become an added-value for customers and for the financial sector (investors and bankers), and a healthier workforce is needed to increase productivity and reduce operational costs.

The Government of Myanmar can and should speed up the fight against malnutrition by creating the conditions for companies to act. For instance, by developing clear policies for food standards, food safety conditions, labelling, marketing policies for adults and children, and for health and nutrition standards in the workplace, including the promotion of breastfeeding for working mums.

Only through working together with private, public and not-for-profit players, will Myanmar be a victor in the malnutrition fight. The SUN Business Network in Myanmar, which is one of the networks under the global SUN Movement, aims to contribute to this fight by improving and strengthening Myanmar’s private sector contribution towards improving nutrition. It aims to work closely together with the Myanmar government, SUN Civil Society Network and SUN United Nations Network.

The SUN Business Network Myanmar will be launched in 2020.

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