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Health and Nutrition

Five takeaways for better nutrition in South Asia—and beyond

Felipe F. Dizon's picture
In many developing countries, governments and health authorities face the dilemma of how to feed their growing population while ensuring their food is nutritious. Credit: World Bank

Together with more than 1,500 academics, scientists, and policymakers, we participated last week in the Rice Olympics.
 
The event—formally known as the International Rice Congress (IRC)—provides a unique window on the latest innovations and policies about the globe’s most important staple crop.
 
For many, rice may not seem worth the cost of a conference trip. Yet, half of the world’s population depend on it as their main supply of nutrients and energy.  
 
Rice isn’t just a crop,” said Rajan Garjaria, Executive Vice President for Business Platforms at Corteva Agriscience. “It’s a way of life. A place can be made or broken, based on their rice crop.
 
The Congress discussed a breadth of topics, but what stood out the most is that rice can be instrumental in making people healthier and in sustaining the planet.
 
The South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI), a World Bank partnership that aims to improve food and nutrition security across the region, participated in the Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems and Diets and presented its latest research on linkages among food prices, diet quality, and nutrition security.  
 
Overall, the event underscored how governments and health authorities in many developing countries face the dilemma of how to feed their growing population while ensuring their food is nutritious and discussed relevant strategies to transform nutrition security challenges into opportunities.

It’s time to end malnutrition in South Asia

Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough's picture
Chronic malnutrition remains prevalent across the region as many poor South Asians cannot afford nutritious foods or don’t have the relevant information or education to make smart dietary choices.
Chronic malnutrition remains prevalent across South Asia as many poor South Asians cannot afford nutritious foods or don’t have the relevant information or education to make smart dietary choices.

In Sri Lanka, as in the rest of South Asia, improving agricultural production has long been a priority to achieve food security. 

But growing more crops has hardly lessened the plight of malnutrition. 

Chronic malnutrition remains prevalent across the region as many poor South Asians cannot afford nutritious foods or don’t have the relevant information or education to make smart dietary choices. 
And children and the poorest are particularly at risk.

South Asia is home to about 62 million of the world’s 155 million children considered as stunted-- or too short for their age. 

And more than half of the world’s 52 million children identified as wasted—or too thin for their height—live in South Asia. 

Moderate-to-severe stunting rates ranged from 17 percent in Sri Lanka in 2016 to a high 45 percent in Pakistan in 2012–13, with rates above 30 percent for most countries in the region.

Moderate-to-severe wasting rates ranged from 2 percent in Bhutan in 2015 to 21 percent in India in 2015–16, with rates above 10 percent for most countries in the region. 

The social and economic cost of malnutrition is substantial, linked to impaired cognitive development, chronic disease, and lower future earnings.

And sadly, much remains to be done to ensure children across South Asia can access the nutritious foods they need to live healthy lives. 

Can cash transfers solve Bangladesh’s malnutrition?

Rubaba Anwar's picture
Silvi and her mother arrive with Silvi’s birth certificate to enroll into Jawtno. a cash transfer program aimed to help 600,000 poor families in Bangladesh access prenatal and child care.
Silvi and her mother arrive with Silvi’s birth certificate to enroll into Jawtno. a cash transfer program that aims to help 600,000 poor families in Bangladesh access prenatal and child care. Credit: World Bank


Silvi is eight months old. She lives in a remote village in one of the poorest regions of Bangladesh.
 
Her mother Maya often reflects on her pregnancy and worries about her daughter’s wellbeing as she recalls her morning sickness, the uncertain and painful birth, and the long nights at Silvi’s side as the baby lay wide awake wailing, fighting one illness after the other.
 
She remembers, too, the thrills of hearing Silvi giggle at the sound of her rattle, and when she began to crawl.
 
Despite the little joys that her baby brings to Maya, Silvi’s early childhood was marked with apprehension: Shouldn’t she be a little heavier? When will she learn to walk? Will she be healthy and intelligent enough to earn a decent living when she grows up? Or would she be handed down her parents’ poverty and get married like Maya had to, at only sixteen?
 
But with the right kind of support, Silvi can have a chance at a better life and bring her family out of poverty.
 
Growing evidence has shown that adequate nutrition before birth and the two years after – or in the first 1,000-days – has lasting effects on a child’s intelligence and brain development.
 
When they’re properly fed and exposed to learning, children can reach their full potential and break the poverty trap.
 
Thus, investing in early childhood nutrition and cognitive development (CNCD) is critical to curbing poverty in a country like Bangladesh, where 36 percent of children below the age of 5 are stunted —or too short for their age--, low birth weight is prevalent, and maternal nutrition remains poor.
 
Sadly, poor families like Maya’s are not utilizing services available to them.  

Tackling India’s hidden hunger

Edward W. Bresnyan's picture
India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)
With India’s rapidly growing dairy industry, large-scale milk fortification of Vitamins A and D is a robust vehicle for increasing micronutrients intake across the population. Credit: India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)  
Micronutrient deficiencies, especially Vitamin A and D, are prevalent in India. 
 
Yet, these deficiencies -- often referred to as ‘hidden hunger’ -- go largely unnoticed and affect large populations.
 
Night blindness, a condition afflicting millions of pregnant women and children, stems from low intake of foods rich in essential nutrients like Vitamin A.
 
Budget constraints limit access to nutrient-rich foods for many families, who are unaware or unable to afford a nutritious diet.
 
National programs help supplement diets with Iron and Vitamin, but their scope is too narrow to adequately address these deficiencies.
 
 India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)  
Food fortification is a relatively simple, powerful and cost-effective approach to curb micronutrient deficiencies. It is in general socially accepted and requires minimal change in existing food habits. Credit: Credit: India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)


Fortified Milk Helps Increase Vitamins Intake
 
When fortified with vitamin A and D, milk, which remains a staple for many Indians, can help alleviate dietary deficiencies when supplementation is not available.

Food fortification is a relatively simple, powerful and cost-effective approach to curb micronutrient deficiencies. It is in general socially accepted and requires minimal change in existing food habits.

The process is inexpensive and costs about 2 paisa per liter or about one-tenth of a cent.  And because it only adds a fraction of daily recommended nutrients, the process is considered safe.

For these reasons, food fortification has been successfully scaled up in some emerging economies.

However, except for salt fortification with iodine, India has not yet achieved large-scale food fortification. 

With India’s rapidly growing dairy industry, large-scale milk fortification of Vitamins A and D is a robust vehicle for increasing micronutrients intake across the population.