Microsoft founder and global do-gooder Bill Gates is involved in all kinds of projects to end poverty, promote education, save lives, and improve public health.
Those health efforts are some of the most prominent projects of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As Gates explained in a discussion at the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, the only institution or organisation that spends more on trying to create a malaria vaccine than the Gates Foundation is the US government — and it’s “very close.”
But of all the many health issues around the world that Gates is interested in curing, there’s one that stands out for Gates: nutrition.
“If I had one wand that I could wave for a medical condition, I would use it for nutrition,” Gates said during a discussion of preventative care and resilient health systems at the Clinton Foundation meeting.
Solving the problems that are caused when children don’t get enough food or the right nutrients could have a huge impact, he explained.
About half of the six million deaths of children under the age of five every year are caused by nutrition-related factors, Gates said. And achieving adequate nutrition for all would do even more than save those lives.
“For every kid that dies, there are four kids who survive but they never develop physically or mentally,” Gates said. Being physically stunted is a big problem, but that mental impact has even bigger ramifications. When a child has had a huge nutritional setback from the start, he explained, any investments into education and productivity will never achieve their full potential.
According to the latest estimates from the World Health Organisation, nearly a quarter of children around the world are stunted, which is defined as “the failure to grow both physically and cognitively [as a] result of chronic or recurrent malnutrition.” And it’s not just an issue for children. “Its effects,” the WHO notes, “often last a lifetime.”
Stunting is just one of many persistent health problems associated with malnutrition.
“The poor countries of Africa will never be self-sufficient until you solve this nutrition problem,” Gates said.
There are ways that the Gates Foundation and others are trying to solve this problem.
Gates explained at the Clinton Foundation meeting that efforts to promote diet variety are important, since helping people get access to a greater variety of foods offers vitamins and other health benefits that limited diets cannot. Providing micronutrient supplementation (like Vitamin A, which helps protect against blindness) is another way to help the approximately 2 billion people who are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. Other solutions include adding vitamins to salt, as is done with iodine.
Genetic modification is also an important part of the solution, Gates said. “Absolutely we should use all of science to make better seeds,” he said. “Food safety should not be about the process, it should be about the product” — and genetically modified foods have been shown to be safe, time and time again.
But while these innovations could certainly help and are helping already — deaths of children under five have been cut in half over the past 15 years — Gates argues that we don’t come close to paying enough attention to nutrition.
Malnutrition “probably gets the least attention of all health conditions relative to the potential impact,” he said.
NOW WATCH: 4 ways to stay awake without caffeine
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.