Hidden Hunger: Tackling micronutrient deficiencies

HGAs we wait to hear from global policy leaders meeting at the Nutrition for Growth summit in London tomorrow, we have been thinking about all the different ways that malnutrition can be tackled, in particular agricultural measures than can be taken to boost nutrition.

In a new video story, Alina Paul of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) outlines the extent of micronutrient deficiency (termed hidden hunger) in India. Looking in particular at iron-deficiency, over 70% of children under the age of 3 and half of women in India suffer from anaemia, often linked to iron deficiency. Such deficiencies affect their development and survival.

In order to combat widespread deficiencies in iron, India is taking steps to promote iron-rich crops such as pearl millet, which is high in vitamin B, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc as well as being well adapted to drought, poor soils and high temperatures. The Indian government is aiming to reverse the trend of declining millet production by incorporating the crop into school feeding programmes, thereby improving school children’s nutrition and creating market demand. Elsewhere the Home Grown School Feeding programme is making great strides in procuring traditional nutritious food for school children from local farmers.

International donors are also funding research into the development of higher yielding pearl millet with enhanced iron content. HarvestPlus and ICRISAT have partnered with Nirmal Seeds in India to develop and distribute a new conventionally bred, higher iron pearl millet variety. Since May 2012 over 25,000 farmers have bought and planted this seed.

But breeding more nutritious crops is only part of the solution to tackle hidden hunger. Growing a diversity of nutritious crops will help to boost household nutrition. Gordon Conway often references his experiences of Home Gardens in Java (see picture) that grow a wide variety of plants and crops and house different livestock, all of which can be consumed or sold. The M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation has recognised the importance of local people in fighting hidden hunger and has established a programme of Community Hunger Fighters, village volunteers who are trained to address the major causes of malnutrition within their community.

Agricultural measures, such as improved varieties, diversification and biofortification, to reduce micronutrient deficiency are important for the long-term. Supplements to provide micronutrients lacking in the diet such as vitamin A can be critical in times of disaster and can reach a large number of people. But supplementation can also be costly and have unintended consequences. As an example, a recent study found that when supplements containing iron, folic acid, copper and vitamins were given to more than 600 Tanzanian children suffering iron deficiency their likelihood of contracting malaria rose by 41 per cent.

As we see malnutrition is a complex problem and will require a variety of complementary solutions. While it manifests in individuals, communities and countries it occurs at the cellular level, requiring research at multiple scales  alongside better nutrition education, better hygiene and sanitation, access to clean water and health care, and diversified and resilient agricultural production. Such a holistic approach is being piloted in Mali in the Africa RISING project where community health centres and women’s groups are being trained on a variety of topics.

The momentum around tackling hidden hunger is growing and we can expect strong support from the G8 countries and other influential figures this weekend. There are a plethora of solutions and many good news stories but we desperately need to keep this momentum going and break down the boundaries between different sectors and government ministries to truly take integrated, harmonised and impactful action against malnutrition.

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