How Science Is Catalysing Biofortification Of Food To Curb Malnutrition And Poverty

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By Jim Rex Lawson Moses

Malnutrition occurs when the body doesn’t get enough nutrients. Causes include a poor diet, digestive conditions or another disease.

According to World Health Organisation, WHO, malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients. The term malnutrition covers 2 broad groups of conditions. One is ‘undernutrition’—which includes stunting (low height for age), wasting (low weight for height), underweight (low weight for age) and micronutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies (a lack of important vitamins and minerals). The other is overweight, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer).

The consequences of malnutrition cannot be overemphasized as malnutrition affects people in every country. According to WHO, around 1.9 billion adults worldwide are overweight, while 462 million are underweight. An estimated 41 million children under the age of 5 years are overweight or obese, while some 159 million are stunted and 50 million are wasted. Adding to this burden are the 528 million or 29% of women of reproductive age around the world affected by anaemia, for which approximately half would be amenable to iron supplementation.

How Science Is Catalysing Biofortification Of Food To Curb Malnutrition And Poverty
How Science Is Catalysing Biofortification Of Food To Curb Malnutrition And Poverty

The reason for this alarming situation is attributed to the fact that many families cannot afford or access enough nutritious foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, meat and milk, while foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt are cheaper and more readily available, leading to a rapid rise in the number of children and adults who are overweight and obese, in poor as well as rich countries.

The situation tends to be worse in Africa especially Nigeria largely due to high level of illiteracy, poor economic climate, poverty, low per capital income of citizens, lack of political will, etc.

The end result is a poorer nation, low GDP, higher sick population, low birth weight, high rate of out-of-school children, poverty, high rate of infant and maternal mortality, higher budgetary allocatiions for the health sector, etc.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, the first 1,000 days of a child’s life offer a unique window of opportunity for preventing undernutrition and its consequences. It stated futher that malnutrition is a direct or underlying cause of 45 percent of all deaths of under-five children.

According to UNICEF, Nigeria has the second highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32 percent of children under five. An estimated 2 million children in Nigeria suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), but only two out of every 10 children affected is currently reached with treatment. Seven percent of women of childbearing age also suffer from acute malnutrition. Exclusive breastfeeding rates have not improved significantly over the past decade, with only 17 percent of babies being exclusively breastfed during their first six months of life. Just 18 percent of children aged 6-23 months are fed the minimum acceptable diet.

The States in northern Nigeria are the most affected by the two forms of malnutrition – stunting and wasting. High rates of malnutrition pose significant public health and development challenges for the country. Stunting, in addition to an increased risk of death, is also linked to poor cognitive development, a lowered performance in education and low productivity in adulthood – all contributing to economic losses estimated to account for as much as 11 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

In realisation of the foregoing, scientists, agriculturists and food scientists, in recent times, have risen to the challenge to produce essential vitamins fortified staples crops and biofortified foods to make up for nutrients deficiency in food. Government agencies are also not left out in ensuring that set standards are complied with in the production of certain processed foods and food additives through enforcements and policy formulation.

Fortification simply means the addition of vitamins and minerals to food products to prevent nutritional deficiencies. Fortified foods, therefore, help to fill in the nutritional gaps in a diet, thereby underscoring its importance. Also known as food enrichment, it is done to address micronutrient deficiencies across populations, countries and regions.

Nigeria Food Fortification

In 2002, Nigeria mandated the fortification of selected food staples – wheat flour, maize flour, sugar and vegetable oil. Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, GAIN, made its first grant disbursement in 2007 to the National Planning Commission to mobilize stakeholders and establish the National Fortification Alliance. GAIN then provided a grant to the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) for Phase 2 of the project entitled ‘Social Marketing, Capacity Building, Monitoring, Evaluation and Impact Assessment of Fortified Food.” GAIN is supporting a Phase 3 food fortification project entitled “Strengthening Large Scale Fortification in Nigeria” through compliance and social marketing. GAIN recently donated I-check kits to support the national monitoring of micronutrient levels in processed staple foods. A workshop was also organized to train regulatory agencies and industry on regulatory and production processes that will ensure compliance. In February 2014, a social marketing campaign was launched in Lagos and Kano States to help improve consumer knowledge about the benefits of consuming fortified foods.

Nigerian Prof Confident Plant Biotechnology Would Aid Socio-economic Growth of Africa
Nigerian Prof Confident Plant Biotechnology Would Aid Socio-economic Growth of Africa

Also, in 2017,  Eighteen bio-fortified varieties comprising six vitamin A cassava, eight vitamin A maize, two orange sweet potato and two iron and zinc sorghum, which are  bred conventionally, were released officially in Nigeria, by Harvestplus, an international agricultural organization. According to the Country Manager, Dr. Paul Ilona, who spoke to journalist in Ibadan, the Oyo state capital, Southwest Nigeria, “Over two million farmers are estimated to be growing them now,” he said. According to him, nutritious foods are of immense importance for good health.

“We must connect the dots among nutritious foods, health, income, women empowerment and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth,” he said.

He told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that the aim of the organisation was to tackle hidden hunger on a global scale by ensuring vitamins and minerals in food crops.

The country manager said that Harvestplus was working with partners including the Internatiinal Istitute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to build sustainable food systems and bridge the gap between agriculture and nutrition.

He also said that an estimated 3,000 participants and 10,000 attendees would converge at the Michael Okpara Square, Enugu, for the 2017 Nutritious Food Fair (NFF) aimed at  improving  the livelihood of Nigerians.

Ilona said that mega livelihood and income generating opportunities would be facilitated for participants at the fair. He hoped that the fair would result in success for new generation of micro, small and medium-scale businesses and investors in nutritious food.

Ilona, HarvestPlus and its partners developed new varieties of staple food crops with higher amounts of vitamin A, iron or zinc to consumers in an effort to tackle malnutrition.

 The staple crops are naturally bio-fortified and not genetically modified.

How Science Is Catalysing Biofortification Of Food To Curb Malnutrition And Poverty
How Science Is Catalysing Biofortification Of Food To Curb Malnutrition And Poverty

Economically speaking,  the efforts of this subsector are already yielding some economic benefits. For instance, according to HarvestPlus,  Funmilayo Akinola, 28, was unable to obtain formal education because her family was poor. Pelumi Aribisala, 35, successfully acquired a university degree in Nigeria. But both live with the same reality: an inability to secure a sustainable and secure form of employment.

Their stories represent the fate of over 22.64 million others living in every rural and urban city of Nigeria. Funmilayo and Pelumi have, however, been able to create a much more fulfilling situation for themselves with the help of HarvestPlus. They have gained financial freedom and generated employment while also contributing to eradicating micronutrient malnutrition — a condition that kills 145 women of childbearing age and 2,300 children in Nigeria under the age of five daily.

Since the early 2000s, youth unemployment has become more prevalent in Nigeria. This problem is widespread across the world’s youngest continent. Youth constitute about 37 percent of the total labor force in Africa, but make up about 60 percent of total unemployment. Many resolve this by engaging in low-quality jobs in the informal sector of the economy.

Funmilayo started a microenterprise for biofortified food products and planting materials after receiving training from HarvestPlus. She uses simple implements such as a food extruder and spatula, vegetable oil, spices, cowpeas, and vitamin A cassava flour, to produce a weekly average of 2,400 pieces of a popular crunchy snack called combobites. Sales have been brisk, netting her about 700 USD (₦252,000) monthly.

Pelumi on the other hand is co-founder of one of the first biofortified food processing companies in Nigeria. Today, his company—Cato Foods—produces and markets over 62 tons of vitamin A gari, fufu and flour from vitamin A cassava. Cato Foods is also the first and largest producer of casstard, a variant of custard developed from vitamin A cassava. This novel food product is an ideal complementary food delivering up to 50 percent of the daily vitamin A needs of infants and children under five.

There’s been a surge in recent years in the number of youth agro-entrepreneurs like Funmilayo and Pelumi—who have shed the shame and drudgery of farming, making it a cool pursuit for many young unemployed adults. Now in Nigeria are young people defining their lives independently of government, using biofortified cassava, maize, millet, sorghum and cowpea varieties to earn salaries equivalent to and even exceeding what directors in federal civil service earn.

READ MORE: Ogbeh Visits Beans Market Owned by IDPs, Promises FG Assistance

In Nigeria alone, more than one million people make significant income from full time jobs as producers, market facilitators, bulking agents, processors and distributors of biofortified planting materials and food products.

How Science Is Catalysing Biofortification Of Food To Curb Malnutrition And Poverty
How Science Is Catalysing Biofortification Of Food To Curb Malnutrition And Poverty

Samuel Ajewole (32) and Blessing Owoseni (33) are two such people. Samuel matches demand with supply of planting materials of biofortified crops and vitamin A cassava roots, helping farmers sell their produce by supplying biofortified materials in bulk to areas where they are needed. Market facilitators like Samuel receive periodic technical support from HarvestPlus to help facilitate access to remote communities.

“My job helps me deliver nutrition to hard-to-reach places. Satisfaction comes from knowing that I am helping to proliferate a solution (biofortification) that is positively impacting on the health and nutrition of children and women,” Samuel says.

These voices represent a few of the numerous young Nigerians whose energies HarvestPlus has helped channel into profitable and sustainable ventures. Alternatives like this give these bright people a path to decent and rewarding employment.

“Who would have thought,” Funmilayo says, “that an uneducated woman from Akinyele, in the interiors of Oyo State, would be able to use science to produce a snack which schools, health centers and supermarkets are happy to patronize? I can now comfortably cater for my family and give my children the quality education that I missed.”

Today, she trains other women limited by poverty and illiteracy to help them achieve their fullest potential.


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