Food availability and stunting

The country’s achievement, in terms of food production, has been remarkable. Food deficit used to be of a very high level when its population was less than half of the present size. Over a period of nearly four decades, the food production has recorded a threefold increase, leading to availability of sufficient food from domestic sources.

It is now accepted, both nationally and internationally, that Bangladesh is near self-sufficient in food. In fact, it produces enough food to feed its population. However, import of a limited quantity of food grains is required to maintain a buffer stock. Besides, in case an extensive damage caused to paddy by a natural calamity, larger import becomes necessary.

The truth is that food shortage is a thing of the past in this country. Despite continuous loss of arable land, the farmers have been able to increase per acre yield notably through application of modern farm practices. However, experts are confident that the per acre yield could be raised further if farmers had overcome the flaws that still exist in their farming practices.

What is, however, really painful is that even in a stable food supply situation, nutritional status of the population remains unsatisfactory. None other than the incumbent agricultural minister the other day came out with unpalatable statistics.

According to the minister, malnutrition among mothers and children in Bangladesh is still high. About 36 per cent of under-five children are stunted and one-third of all children are underweight.

The issues of under-nourishment and poverty are interlinked. Prevalence of malnutrition is high among mothers and children in poor and low-income families. So, the rates of poverty and under-nourishment are almost identical.

These days, none remains fully starved. Instead of two square meals, some people might be having one. The government’s safety net programmes for the distressed and disadvantaged people in society has expanded over the years. Despite corruption and other irregularities in those, the poor people are being benefitted by those programmes, to some extent. Obviously, the assistance is well short of the requirement.

One has to accept the fact that availability of protein, fruits and vegetables is now more than before. Though the supply of protein from indigenous sources has declined, the production of protein in poultry and fish farms has increased manifold. This is also true in the case of milk and egg. What one needs is money to buy cereals, protein, fruits, milk and vegetables, all combined make a balanced food.

The hard truth is that scores of families do not have the means to buy all the items that constitute balanced food. They are neither aware of the need for consuming balanced food that is required to help prevent stunting. Such lack of awareness about balanced food, however, is observed even in many affluent families.

It is important to understand the eventual outcome of high presence of stunting among children. The poor children are not just stunted physically. This does affect their mental growth. These children grow up with not just physical disability but also with mental weaknesses. All these bode ill for the future of the country.

So, there has to be a two-pronged strategy to come out of the problem of stunting among children. One should relate to improving economic conditions of the poor and the other to making them aware of the need for consuming the balanced food in quantities they can afford.