ALMOST two billion people in the world face hidden hunger or micronutrient deficiencies because essential vitamins and minerals are missing from their diet.
Deficiencies of micronutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin A may lead to stunted growth, poor cognitive development, increased risk of infections, and among women it may cause complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
In Pakistan, where an overwhelming majority of people live in rural areas, around 80 per cent of the population suffer from hidden hunger.
Short-term strategies being used the world over to overcome micronutrient deficiencies include food supplements and food fortification. But both these approaches are expensive as they require repeated investment.
Punjab plans to introduce Rs3.5bn, five-year project aimed at enhancing nutrition of staple crops, fruits, vegetables and their products
Supplements do treat multiple micronutrient deficiencies, but the strategy is resource-intensive and does not tackle the real cause of the problem: dietary inadequacy.
Some private-sector companies have been offering fortified wheat flour and food products like bread. But they meet the requirements of a limited, especially well-off, people as the poorest families do not have access to commercially processed foods.
Agriculture authorities in Punjab have recently planned an intervention for downtrodden people, often those affected the most by hidden hunger. The Rs3.5 billion biofortification project aims at enhancing nutrition of staple crops, fruits, vegetables and their products in the climate change scenario.
Under the five-year plan, iron and zinc-enriched, disease-resistant and high-yielding wheat, rice, maize, canola and citrus varieties will be developed at various research institutes of the Punjab agriculture department.
Dr Javaid Ahmad, director for wheat at the Ayub Agriculture Research Institute (AARI), Faisalabad, says most Pakistanis cannot afford costly food supplements and mostly use wheat flour as their daily diet. Therefore, the institute plans to develop wheat varieties that are rich in iron and zinc.
Being a lengthy process is the only disadvantage of this strategy, as developing an iron- and zinc-rich variety may take eight to 10 years, he says. As a medium-term measure, studies are being conducted to find out fertilisers that may increase iron and zinc contents in the crop through soil application. This approach may take around three years.
In the short run, efforts are afoot to develop products which can be mixed with flour to increase the volume of micronutrients, he says, and stresses that the enhanced level of iron, zinc and vitamins will not affect the flavour and colour of food products.
He rules out fears expressed by some health professionals that an overdose of minerals and vitamins may lead to health complications, arguing that bio-fortified crops have already been introduced in 30 countries and from nowhere any health hazard has been reported because of the consumption of the iron- and zinc-rich food.
“The products will be locally tested from all aspects before being marketed for the consumption of the general public,” he says.
Some agro traders fear that bio-fortified crops and food products may be unacceptable in international markets like the European Union and North America where people are either not faced with micronutrient deficiency or prefer supplementation to bio-fortified diet.
Samiullah Chaudhry, chairman of the Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan, says the association approached Punjab’s agriculture authorities with similar fears because rice is also among the crops included in the biofortification project.
However, they were assured that the bio-fortified rice lines will be introduced only in a limited area. Moreover, the packaging of the bio-fortified crop and products will clearly show that the packed content is high in iron and zinc so that it lands only in the hands of interested buyers.
Dr Ahmad of the AARI says that there is no question of damage to the export business, as the institute will not cross the internationally admissible limits or standards of biofortification in any case, no matter the products are launched locally or internationally.
However, a senior faculty member of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, throws a word of caution. “Much will depend on the model being used for biofortification,” he says, requesting not to be named because his department is a rival to the AARI. “It will be better to use a model without GMO (genetically modified organism) lines for the sake of health. Otherwise, you will have to go for rigorous health tests before introducing bio-fortified food products.”
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 19th, 2018
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