Farming innovations help improve child nutrition


By Dr Brian Hilton, Food Security Advisor, Program Development

I was invited by World Vision in Bangladesh to come and have a look at what they were doing and to see what else they could do to further reduce malnutrition in Rangpur District in the north of the country, nestled between two parts of India.

Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world, with 160 million people living in an area two-thirds the size of Victoria, so I was expecting to be shocked by the crowds and poverty. I wasn’t disappointed.

I flew to the regional airport in Rangpur. We visited a number of villages in a mostly Hindu area. I never felt so welcomed anywhere. Every village had flowers to put around my neck and flower petals to throw into my hair or what little there is left of it. It is always a little embarrassing being pampered by people who have so little. It is a little like being a movie star, albeit a movie star on crutches!

I visited nutrition groups following the PD/Hearth approach to investigate what they are doing. PD/Hearth encourages poor mothers to identify nutritious local foods and feed these to their children. Although we teach that meat is very nutritious and high in protein and iron, we know that these families can’t afford meat. We encourage families to grow vegetables, lentils and have a few egg-laying chickens so they can feed eggs to their children.

I always test the nutritional knowledge of ladies in the nutrition groups. There are certain topics that they must master, such as the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, hygiene, dietary diversity, and what to do if your child has diarrhoea. It might seem funny for me to be talking about breastfeeding and diarrhoea to a bunch of conservative ladies, but I had their rapt attention.

Nothing is sadder than a child’s funeral and in Bangladesh it still happens too often. These mothers would do anything for their children, but they are very poor and have few options. Being part of a World Vision Area Development Program means that these mothers have access to medical attention in life-threatening situations.


New rice variety boosts nutrition

In northwest Bangladesh, rice farmers have about 1-1.5 acres of land each, which is tiny by world standards. I have been to rice growing areas in NSW and farmers there have hundreds or even thousands of acres.

In Bangladesh the best yields are only a third of what Australian farmers get. There are however many things that we can do without increasing farmers’ costs. One of these is changing the rice variety. Zinc deficiency is rampant in Bangladesh with about 40 percent of children affected. This results in hair loss, inability to fight off diarrhoea and a host of other developmental issues. New high zinc rice varieties can reduce zinc deficiency in the population as rice is the main staple.

One of World Vision’s partners, HarvestPlus, has developed a high zinc rice which is also early maturing. This means an additional crop like potatoes can be grown in the cool season and taken to market. The farmers growing this new high nutrition rice are happy because they are making more money at the same time. World Vision is working with its local networks to scale up the shift to high zinc rice.

There is one other thing that we have discovered by collaborating with crop breeders at the University of Melbourne. Rice is high in iron, an important nutrient, but almost all the iron is concentrated in the outer bran layer of the rice grain. The bad news is that if one likes white rice almost all the iron is lost during the polishing process.

Most Asians do not like or eat brown rice which has better nutrition. I can understand this because brown rice cooks and tastes differently to white rice. However we have wondered if Bangladeshis would eat a “beige” rice in which a little of the bran is retained. This does seem possible and World Vision will work with rice millers to convince them to polish rice a little less in order to keep a little of the bran.

Helping women earn money with ginger

In Bangladesh spices are money. This is a spice eating culture and people will pay extra for food to taste good, even poor people. But spices are not easy to grow. For instance, ginger is a high value spice but farmers struggle to control root rot. World Vision is trying to reduce the risks associated with growing ginger by providing farmers with ginger varieties that are resistant to root rot.

One thing I found out is that women can’t go to the market to sell their produce. Bangladesh is a very conservative society that believes women should stay at home. Hence women have to give the ginger they grow to their husbands to sell and hope they will bring the money home rather than spend it on vices like cock-fighting.

The results are always better for children if their mothers have control of household funds because they are much more likely to spend it on children’s needs than men. World Vision is helping women do collective marketing from their village where they accumulate quantities of spices they have grown and merchants come to them to buy.

Even in such a poor country as Bangladesh, World Vision, together with supporters like you, can help children by helping their parents to plant high zinc rice and helping women earn more money by growing ginger and selling it through a group.