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Food processors, crop breeders and efforts to end malnutrition

By Femi Ibirogba
20 August 2018   |   4:27 am
One out of three children in Nigeria is malnourished and around 45% of infant mortality is linked to malnutrition worldwide. FEMI IBIROGBA writes about the dual approaches of crop and food fortification to tackle the challenge.

HarvestPlus Nigeria displaying vitamin A cassava flour products in Ibadan, Oyo State, recently. PHOTO: Femi Ibirogba

One out of three children in Nigeria is malnourished and around 45% of infant mortality is linked to malnutrition worldwide. FEMI IBIROGBA writes about the dual approaches of crop and food fortification to tackle the challenge.

Crop bio-fortification and incorporation of micronutrients into processed foods have been identified as an effective strategy to reduce malnutrition, its attendant high infant mortalities and disease burdens on Nigeria and Africa as a whole.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says 52 million children under five years of age are wasted, 17 million are severely wasted and 155 million are stunted, while 41 million are overweight or obese because of malnutrition, which includes inadequate vitamins and minerals.

The world health body also says around 45% of deaths among children under five years of age are linked to malnutrition. These mostly occur in developing and poor economies of the world. At the same time, in these same countries, rates of childhood overweight and obesity are rising.

The developmental, economic, social and medical impacts of the global burden of malnutrition are serious and lasting, for individuals and their families, for communities and for countries.

As claimed by Technoserve, a business solution company, Nigeria faces the biggest burden of malnutrition in Africa and is home to the world’s second-largest population of malnourished children. A processed food summit anchored by the organization also said recently that one out of three Nigerian children under the age of five is considered stunted; their bodies and brains are deprived of the key nutrients they need to fully develop and reach their potential. Nearly half of all infant deaths in the country are attributable to malnutrition.

As the WHO puts it, there are two basic types of malnutrition and the first and most important is protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), or a lack of calories and protein. Food is converted into energy by humans, and the energy contained in food is measured by calories. Protein is necessary for key body functions, including the development and maintenance of muscles. Protein-energy malnutrition is the more lethal form of malnutrition/hunger and is the type of malnutrition that is referred to when world hunger is discussed.

The second type of malnutrition, as described by the WHO, is ‘hidden hunger’, meaning deficiency in major micronutrients essential for healthy mental and physical development.

Three of the very important micronutrient in terms of health consequences for people in lower-middle-income countries are iron, Vitamin A and iodine.
Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) also claims that iron deficiency causes anaemia, which is usually aggravated by worm infections, malaria and other infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. Health consequences are poor pregnancy outcome, impaired physical and cognitive development, increased risk of morbidity and mortality in children and reduced work productivity in adults. Anaemia, it added, contributes to 20 per cent of all maternal deaths.

Vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness and reduce resistance to disease and can also impair growth in infants, according to FAO, and an estimated 250 million pre-school children are vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.

FAO describes iodine deficiency as one of the main causes of impaired cognitive development in children. About 38 million babies are born with iodine deficiency worldwide, especially in Africa and Asia.

“Iodine deficiency has a simple solution: iodized salt. Thanks to this intervention, the number of countries where iodine deficiency is a public health problem has been halved over the past decade. However, 54 countries still have a serious iodine deficiency problem,” it says.

Bio-fortified Vitamin A cassava roots. PHOTO: Femi Ibirogba

Micronutrient-related malnutrition
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, and they enable the body to produce enzymes, hormones, and other substances that are essential for proper growth and development of a child. Some of the most important micronutrients pertinent to the global public health, again, are iodine, vitamin A, and iron, and their inadequacy poses serious threats to the health and development, particularly in children and pregnant women.

However, efforts to reduce the number of affected children and women have been ongoing, and they revolve around crop and food fortification, but more should be done to close the gap, and eventually eradicate malnutrition related dangers.

Crop fortification
HarvestPlus is promoting vitamin A-rich orange flesh sweet potato in Uganda and Mozambique, where deficiency of the vitamin is very high, while it promotes vitamin A fortified cassava in Nigeria, where over 100 million people are estimated to be consuming cassava-based products.   The potato and the cassava are biologically fortified with beta carotene, which is converted by the body to vitamin A. Potato is widely consumed in Uganda and Mozambique, just as cassava is widely consumed in Nigeria, justifying the selection of those crops to reach out the target peoples in the efforts to checkmate malnutrition.

Harvestplus leads a global effort to improve nutrition and public health by promoting and disseminating staple food crops that are rich in vitamins and minerals. It is part of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) programme on agriculture for nutrition and health. CGIAR is a global agriculture research partnership for a food secure future.

Most farmers in the developing countries eat what they produce, missing out in the fortified processed foods, while urban and city dwellers consumed processed but not necessarily balanced foods. The two approaches of crop and food fortification, it is believed, would cover a lot of ground in the promotion of healthy diet patterns and close the gap between malnutrition and balanced diet.

Apart from cassava, Vitamin A bio-fortified maize has been developed in Nigeria and farmers are being encouraged to adopt the new varieties of maize to capture a wide spectrum of classes of people. HarvestPlus believes that millions of Nigerians could be fed with Vitamin A maize on the ground that thousands of fresh maize are consumed daily by individuals and households, including the vulnerable ones, either by boiling, roasting or homemade maize-based staples.

Bio-fortified bean has also been developed and being adopted by farmers to broaden the bio-fortified crops base and reach yet a wider spectrum of Nigerians with essential micronutrients until the gap between malnutrition and nutrition is completely closed.

Food fortification
Processed food fortification has been ongoing for years in the country. Some products carry the eye symbol, indicating that they are fortified with vitamin A, which is crucial for healthy sight development. And the rationale for this is that natural sources of these micronutrients such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and others are not usually included in the diet of most poor households.

Therefore, to rev up fortification of more products, over 40 food processing companies, led by Dangote Group, Olam Grains and PZWilmar, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and with the technical expertise of Technoserve, came together on July 26, 2018 to reiterate commitment to improving food fortification levels, a critical step towards addressing Nigeria’s urgent nutrition challenges.

What they called the Nigerian Food Processing and Nutrition Leadership Forum, co-convened by Dangote Group President and CEO, Aliko Dangote, marked the start of a new, business-oriented effort to combat poor nutrition in Nigeria, a problem that seriously hinders the country’s health, productivity, and economic growth.

According to processed food giants, food fortification is an inexpensive, simple solution that improves health and well-being. Adding vitamins and minerals, including iron, iodine, and Vitamin A, to staple foods like oil, flour, salt, and sugar has proven to be one of the most scalable tools to combat malnutrition. Iron fortification, for example, helps prevent cognitive problems and brain damage, and can significantly reduce anaemia, which contributes to low-birth weight babies, maternal deaths and diminished work capacity. Vitamin A supplementation, for its part, lowers the risk of disease and death from infections in both children and pregnant women.

The average cost of fortification in developing countries is just $0.15 per person annually, an inexpensive but high-impact way to reach the majority of the population, who routinely purchase these staple foods.

The food processors said Nigeria was an early leader in food fortification on the continent, but progress has stalled, saying, as Nigerian food processing companies reach around 80% of Nigerians with fortified foods, they are well-positioned to invest in this country’s future health and growth and to help Nigeria regain its leadership role on fortification.

Pledging its support for the private sector-led food fortification moves, the Federal Government said it would look into the possibility of a downward review of tariffs on imported micronutrients for food supplementation. Minister of State for Industry, Trade and Investment, Hajia Aisha Abubakar, assured food processors that the government would look into reducing the tariff of imported micronutrients and how its agencies would be effectively mobilized to ensure the goal of eradicating ‘hidden hunger’ in the country is achieved.

Govt agencies and partners involved
The National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) is expected to play a significant role by preventing unfortified foods from getting to consumers by refusing to grant approvals to such unfortified foods.

The Nigeria Customs Service, too, is expected to clamp down on and prevent further importation of smuggled processed foods into the country. Dangote said this becomes imperative to prevent further consumption of unwholesome smuggled foods through the neighbouring borders.

The Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) is also included in the multifaceted battle against malnutrition. SON is to disapprove any imported food brand without being fortified with essential micronutrients.

Women frying Vitamin A garri. PHOTO: Femi Ibirogba

Stakeholder’s optimism
The Nigeria Food Processing and Nutrition Leadership Forum is part of an initiative of the Strengthening African Processors for Food Fortification (SAPFF), a four-year, $10 million initiative partnership between TechnoServe and the consortium Partners in Food Solutions, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. SAPFF is working with 40 food companies in Nigeria to improve their capacity to produce and sell fortified foods for local markets, working to ensure that all people receive the nutrients they need to lead happy and productive lives.

The forum opined that advancing food fortification would make Nigerian companies more competitive on the global market and tangibly improve the future, physical, social and economic well-being of Nigerians by reaching about 80% of Nigerians, while HarvestPlus Nigeria believed that about 20% per cent not reached by processed foods could be incorporated in the web through bio-fortification of certain crops produced and eaten by the 20%.

A medical practitioner with an international organisation based in Ibadan, Dr ‘Lere Olajide, urged state governments to promote bio-fortified crops in rural areas by facilitating planting materials into these households through their farmers’ cooperative societies. He expressed optimism that the approach would reduce ‘hidden hunger’ and improve on the health of the rural populace. Eating bio-fortified crops they cultivate, he added, is an effective way of reaching them nutrition wise.

Mrs Bola Adeyemo, a farmer and processor of vitamin A fortified cassava in Eruwa, Oyo State, told The Guardian that the yellow-fleshed cassava is embraced in rural areas, and has the potentiality of helping to reduce the burden of malnutrition in Nigeria. She was also optimistic that fortification of processed foods and available bio-fortified crops, if given the necessary push, would solve the problem of malnutrition, especially in Africa.