Malnutrition is costing Pakistan and its people dear. It limits the ability people have to fight disease, leading to high maternal new-born and child death rates. It inhibits brain growth, which reduces learning ability and lowers productivity. It costs Pakistan 2 to 3% of its GDP.

Malnutrition is a serious challenge to Pakistan, but, together, we can make a difference. Evidence from around the world shows that food fortification – adding vitamins and nutrients to food that people eat every day – is an effective and efficient solution to address the lack of nutrients in people’s diets.

That is why, over the next five years, the UK’s Department for International Development will invest in this large-scale programme to improve the nutritional status of people in Pakistan, particularly women of child-bearing age and young children, through food fortification. The programme will achieve this by sustainably improving access and consumption of wheat flour with added iron and folic acid and edible oils and ghee with added Vitamin A.

Adding key nutrients to wheat flour, edible oils and ghee will reach the vast majority of people in Pakistan, and will simply, easily and cheaply enhance the nutritional value of food without requiring changes in eating habits.

The need for enhanced nutrition is unquestionable. The latest figures, from 2011, found that 44% of under-fives are stunted, 32% are underweight, 15% suffer from wasting, 62% have anaemia and 54% have vitamin A deficiency. More than 1 in 20 of the world’s chronically malnourished children live in Pakistan.

It was also found that 51% of pregnant women in Pakistan have anaemia, 37% have iron deficiency and 46% have Vitamin A deficiency. One in five children in Pakistan are born with a low birth weight.

The Government of Pakistan agrees, and is committed to tackling malnutrition. It has signed up to the Scaling Up Nutrition movement and prioritised ending malnutrition in its Vision 2025. As a symbol of their commitment, when launching the Food Fortification Programme, I was standing next to National Food Security and Research Minister Sikandar Hayat Khan Bosan, and State Minister Health Saira Afzal Tarar. Provincial governments are also behind food fortification. All our target provinces mandate the use of food fortification in edible oils; and the Punjab region mandates it in wheat flour.

We know there are challenges. More provinces need to introduce legislation mandating fortification in wheat flour, and legislation enforcement needs to be stepped up, but we know the commitment to do this exists. Food manufacturers need support to increase technical capacity, and consumers need to understand the benefit of choosing fortified food for their families.

The UK government is committed to help. We will be providing technical assistance to government at federal, provincial and district levels on technical standards, legislative and regulatory frameworks, as well as laboratory testing infrastructure. We will help millers with the financial costs of micro-feeder equipment and provide “smart subsidies” to mills towards the cost of premix as an incentive to produce high quality fortified food. We will also provide training and technical support to millers.

Most of all, we will help the people in communities across Pakistan understand the benefits of proper nutrition, and the real value of iron, folic acid and Vitamins A and D.

This programme is significant for the UK and for Pakistan, and has ambitious targets. In the next five years, the Food Fortification Programme aims to ensure that over half of the population of Pakistan is consuming wheat flour and over two-thirds are using edible oil and ghee that have added nutrients.

We know we can make a difference. We aim to reduce by a third iron deficiency anaemia in women and children, and reduce by a quarter Vitamin A deficiency in women and children, plus a decline in neural tube defects in new-borns. UK aid, working with government, communities and business, will be changing the lives of millions of people – a real achievement for them and for Pakistan.