Pakistan Efforts In Eliminating Hidden Hunger And Nutrition
Pakistan is suffering a malnutrition emergency that’s impeding its social and economic wellbeing. In particular, children and women of childbearing age experience harmful deficiencies in critical vitamins and minerals, leading to long-term health and development issues that contribute to an annual loss of 2-3% in GDP.
Help is at hand. A new countrywide intervention aims to tackle this growing crisis at source by fortifying wheat flour and edible oils – a proven, cost-effective means of addressing micronutrient deficiencies and therefore strengthening immune systems and improving cognitive productivity.
- 62% of young children in Pakistan are anemic
- 54% of young children in Pakistan are vitamin A deficient
- 69% of pregnant women in Pakistan are vitamin D deficient
- 40% of young children in Pakistan are vitamin D deficient
- 51% of pregnant women in Pakistan are anemic
(Source: National Nutrition Survey, 2011)
An estimated 2 billion people — over 30 percent of the world’s population — suffer from deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals. “Hidden hunger” is how health experts often refer to micronutrient deficiencies because most people affected do not show the visible physical symptoms and hence may not be aware of their condition.
However, the consequences of hidden hunger can be devastating, leading to mental impairment, poor health, low productivity and in severe cases, death. Even mild to moderate deficiencies can affect a person’s well-being and development. Hidden hunger disproportionately affects infants, young children and women, preventing them from achieving their full potential in life.
Putting an end to this situation is within reach. Proven, low-cost solutions can be implemented and can only be successful if governments, civil society and the private sector build on each other’s know-how to close the nutrient gap.
A role for the industry
In an ideal world, people would obtain essential nutrients from a balanced and varied diet. However, this is not always possible, particularly for poorer populations. Micronutrient fortification is a cost-effective way to address hidden hunger alongside efforts towards diversifying diets.
Staple food fortification programs — such as adding iron and folic acid to bread, or vitamin A to cooking oil and sugar — have been very successful in reducing the disease burden from micronutrient deficiencies.
Yet, many young children and women still fail to fill their nutrient gap because they do not get to eat enough nutritious food. The food and beverage industry can help tackle this major global health problem by adding relevant micronutrients to foods and beverages that people already enjoy eating.
In Pakistan, the Food Fortification Programme (FFP), a five-year programme funded by UK aid is being managed in Pakistan. Backed by specialist expertise from Nutrition International, one of the world’s leading bodies for nutrition and food fortification, the programme aims to significantly enhance the production, access, and consumption of fortified wheat flour with iron and folic acid, and edible oils and ghee with vitamin A.
Bringing their long-standing experience of project management in Pakistan, they are working closely with the Government to improve the food fortification regulatory system, raise awareness and generate evidence to formulate relevant policies to combat micronutrient deficiencies. The programme is also working with the private sector, building capacity for food fortification at flour and oil mills. It will also fund new micro-feeder equipment, technical assistance and provide pre-mix supplements in the initial stages while long-term sustainable capacity is built. Given that wheat and oils are consumed daily by most of the population, food fortification can yield dramatic improvements in nutritional status without a change in eating habits.
At the consumer level, current awareness of the health benefits is low and there is some resistance to purchase fortified food because of perceived costs or taste. To meet these concerns, the programme is engaging at a district level with public awareness and education campaigns to increase demand and promote fortified foods. Provincial and national campaigns will follow when the fortified foods are accessible in the marketplace.
Ending hidden hunger is an achievable goal
Eliminating malnutrition is a top priority in the global development agenda and is the second of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. The business has a role to play as they have the ability and responsibility to contribute towards ending hidden hunger. The private sector can work together with governments and civil society to develop new models to make tasty, nutritious and affordable foods accessible to the people who need them. It’s a win-win investment and the next generation deserves all of our efforts to provide them a healthy future.
These are early days, but there is already political will across the country to act, with both federal and provincial governments committed to ending malnutrition through food fortification.
By 2021, the programme aims to see:
- Over 1,000 wheat flour mills and 100 edible oil mills meeting standards
- One third reduction in iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia, and at least a one-quarter reduction in vitamin A deficiency among women and children
- A decline in births with neural tube defects
- Improvements in vitamin D consumption
- Mandatory legislation for fortification across Pakistan, as well as improved standards, regulatory compliance, quality assurance, and quality control
- Improved management and administration to meet legislative requirements, technical assistance for mixing and storage of premixes, building industry capacity for compliance and testing
- Consumers demanding fortified foods due to their awareness of the benefits it offers