Bangladesh has made significant progress in the health and nutrition sectors over the past few decades. The contribution of various sectors including health, agriculture, fisheries, social security sector is foremost in achieving this improvement. In particular, Bangladesh has shown unprecedented success in achieving agricultural production and food security. Even then, the problem of malnutrition among women and children is evident in Bangladesh. According to the Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey 2016-17, the rate of underweight, thinness and underweight among children under the age of five is 30, 6 and 22 percent respectively. According to the National Micronutrient Survey 2011-12, a significant number of children and women in Bangladesh are suffering from multiple malnutrition (micronutrient) deficiencies. For example, one in five preschool children suffers from vitamin A deficiency, 44 percent suffer from zinc deficiency, about one-third suffer from anemia, and 6.2 percent suffer from iron deficiency anemia. Forty-two percent of fertile women (not pregnant or maternity) suffer from iodine deficiency and about one in four women suffer from anemia.
We are Bengalis in rice and fish. Rice is our main food, so this is right for us. People at all levels of the country, especially those on low or low incomes, spend most of their earnings just to buy rice. So for Bengalis, ‘survival’ means ‘eating rice’. But lately, it seems we are moving away from rice. Whether I understand it or not, I am leaning towards other sugary foods (wheat, flour, corn). About 360 crore tons of rice is used as food in the country every year. We get about 50 percent of the calories our body needs from rice. According to the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRI), rice is the source of about 6 percent of nutrients at the village level.
If our main objective is to improve the health and nutrition of the people, then we need to understand which food we eat more or which food is readily available. Rice, pulses, potatoes, fish, vegetables — these are the foods we eat more. Of these, since we eat more rice, it is timely and relevant to think about increasing the nutritional value of rice. If the nutritional value of rice can be increased by making necessary changes or additions in it, then it is easily possible to improve the nutritional status of the people. And rice enrichment is not something new for Bangladesh, at present rice is enriched in the industrial process. With this we can also use sophisticated biotechnology like biofortification. But of course we will continue to work on ensuring ‘food diversity’ by thinking of other nutrients.
According to the National Nutrition (Micronutrient Deficiency Prevention and Control Strategy 2015-24), food fortification is one of the few approaches to prevent and control malnutrition. In the case of food enrichment, the most used and acceptable food items have been given priority, among them salt, edible oil, rice, pulses etc. are among them.
The National Nutrition Action Plan 2016-25 highlights food enrichment as a long-term agricultural investment in tackling malnutrition in Bangladesh and emphasizes the need for further research in this regard.
On the other hand, one of the major problems in ensuring adequate nutrition is the lack of adequate supply of nutritious rice like Vitamin A, Iron and Zinc in the market. There are also questions about the price of nutritious rice. However, in a discussion a few days ago, the Director General of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute confirmed to me that the price of all nutritious rice is equal to ten ordinary coarse rice. At the national level, the Bangladesh National Nutrition Council (BNNC) is the main and only policy-making body for public health and nutrition. So BNNC is working with those involved in agriculture, food and nutrition research and activities at various ministries, departments and private levels to promote nutritious rice. There are also many opportunities to work together on a larger scale in the future.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has declared 2017-25 as the ‘Nutrition Decade’. To this end, he has directed a number of nutrition indicators, which we need to achieve by 2025. These indicators need to be achieved in a combination of 22 ministries, including the Ministry of Health. With these 22 ministries, it is the job of us, the Bangladesh National Nutrition Council, to conduct the activities as per the direction of the Prime Minister. In this case, some things have been said very clearly. One of them is the role of the Department of Agriculture in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. I hope that the National Nutrition Council will move forward with the concerned ministries for this purpose.
When the outbreak of Kovid-19 started in 2020, the government provided relief to every district. At that time, the Ministry of Disaster Management asked the BNNC what a standard relief package for a week should look like. We then formed a committee consisting of people from different ministries and departments who work with nutrition to fix this ideal package. There was talk that the relief package must include rice, but what other types of nutrition can be provided. At first we discussed that all the rice that would be given under government relief should be nutritious rice. But it was found that nutritious rice is not available in all areas. So it was not done anymore.
‘Rice biofortification’ is a new technology, so people have many questions about it. Such as whether these nutritious rice contains anything harmful to the human body or whether any artificial ingredients are mixed etc. Institutions like the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute should undertake large-scale public relations programs to dispel these misconceptions. In addition, the fact that nutritious rice has been developed with poor people in mind can be brought to the fore, especially at a time of global epidemics such as Kovid-19, when multiple studies have shown that people’s declining purchasing power has affected their food and nutrition status. . So if we can ensure adequate supply of nutritious rice in the market at affordable prices, then the common man can buy and eat it. Even if malnutrition can be increased in every conventional rice variety and if every rice can be improved gradually, then every rice will be quality rice.
One of the major commitments of the current government’s election manifesto is to tackle hunger and malnutrition by 2030 and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This issue has already been included in the Second National Nutrition Plan (NPAN II). In addition, an important policy paper on food and nutrition management, planning and implementation at the national level is the ‘Bangladesh Second National Investment Plan 2018-2021 (CIP 2): Nutrition-Sensitive Food System’ as per the Food Department. There has also been talk of ensuring improved nutrition through explicitly nutrient sensitive and sustainable processes. Which includes advice on biotechnology and other agricultural research and technology expansion.
Following these state policies, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute has developed the world’s first biofortified zinc-rich rice variety. Research on vitamin A-rich golden rice has also been completed. In addition, Brie has developed four more types of zinc-rich rice. Now is the time to spread these rice in the country on a large scale so that the poor can enjoy the benefits.
One of the major reasons for the way we talk about nutrition today is the unimaginable success of the Ministry of Agriculture. As a result, the country is now self-sufficient in food. We are now able to export food to meet the domestic demand of the country. So if the Department of Agriculture puts more emphasis on methods like fortification or bio-fortification in improving the nutritional value of rice, then the implementation of public health and nutrition level development goals will be much easier.