Using Agriculture to Fight Malnutrition

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Odimegwu Onwumere
In June 2016, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), MSF, in a declaration, alerted that about 24,000 Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, were in calamitous health conditions of which 30 people, who were children, were dying every day in their camps.
That was coming after two weeks the Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima paid a visit to Bama camp leading to reports that hundreds of malnourished persons recently rescued from Boko Haram confinement were dying in a camp in Bama.

Nigeria gaps for breath to curb her indices of malnourished persons with available statistics indicating that over two billion people in the world undergo diverse forms of malnutrition.
Nutrition experts GA Nkwocha, KU Anukam, ON Oguoma, and VI Nkwocha are worried that the fundamental causes of malnutrition in Nigeria are poverty, inadequate food production, inadequate food intake, ignorance and uneven distribution of food, poor food preservation techniques, improper preparation of foods, food restrictions and taboos, and poor sanitation.

In an analysis, they relay that there is an increase of mild to moderate symptoms of malnourished persons in Nigeria, making the country to be suffering from a near crumple of nutrition health freedom services. Different surveys, according to them, of nutritional evaluation in Nigeria divulge low intakes of protein, energy, iron, calcium, zinc, thiamin, and riboflavin in almost all age groups and in both sexes.

Hence, they are worried that malnutrition and related diseases such as diarrhea, measles, anemia, and gastroenteritis are the cause of most deaths in infants and young children.
The nutritionists opine that their fear is that with the estimated increase of the world’s population from six billion to more than 7.5 billion by 2020, Nigeria may be suffering untold malnutrition if increase in meat intake is not taken seriously.

Biotechnology
In 2013, participants at the 10th anniversary of African Agricultural Technology Foundation, AATF seminar showed anxiety, saying that Nigeria’s quest of accomplishing food satisfactoriness in proceeding years can only be hinged on the implementation of biotechnology (otherwise called Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs) in the agricultural sector.

The then President Goodluck Jonathan was persuaded and his government set up a committee to inspect the much anticipated Biosafety Bill as passed by the National Assembly before he could sign it into law.
‘‘The project would ensure Nigeria is self sufficient in the production of rice and would boost the countries revenue,’’ then Minister of State for Agriculture, Alhaji Bukar Tijani said in his remarks.

Adesina said in Addis Ababa at the High Level Meeting of AU Heads of State and Government on “unified approach to end hunger in Africa by 2025” that the Nigerian Government had announced plans to swell the use of bio-fortified crops, such as pro-vitamin `A’ cassava and orange-flesh sweet potato to address the hunger situation being faced by some 13 million people.
“Much progress is being made, we are mindful that we still have challenges of malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies to tackle. Nigeria still has 13 million people suffering from hunger, and malnutrition is still high,” Adesina said.

It’s gathered that biotechnology seeks out to harness agricultural practices by making it cost successful, productivity increment and lessening gaps that are not favourable to agriculture. Views are that the initiative is a gateway to competence building, job creation, poverty eradication and alleviation of malnutrition.
Seeing the importance of biotechnology, the United Nations Economic and Social commission for western Asia Cooperation with International Labour Organisation (ILO) are at the forefront in crusading that countries should adopt the technology.

The international bodies believe that countries that adopt a better approach to biotechnology, genetic engineering, biomaterials and informatics being the four novel technologies in using agriculture to fight malnutrition will not lag in economic and social capacity development.
A Director-General of NABDA and Chairman, Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology, Professor Bamidele Solomon, was of the view that the development would positively answer the question that the country was looking for to arrest “food security, job/wealth creation, affordable healthcare delivery and sustainable economic environment.”

The professor added that with the Biosafety Bill, “The law will also facilitate risk assessment exercises, monitoring and enforcement measures relevant to import, export, transboundary movement of the products of modern biotechnology, laboratory, and field testing/use of modern biotechnology including handling, control, monitoring and release of biotech products.’’

It’s understood that not only the development, but also sustaining agriculture through the deployment of biotechnology tools such as culture, molecular breeding and genetic engineering to a wider audience will take the country so far in curbing malnutrition.

“One of their key projects in Nigeria is the development of nitrogen-use, water efficient and salt tolerant rice. This is key because Nigeria is the second largest importer of rice in the world, about two million metric tons of rice from countries like Thailand and China.

“The project would ensure Nigeria is self sufficient in the production of rice and would boost the countries revenue. Another key project AATF has in Nigeria is the Cassava Mechanization and Agro-processing project. Being the largest producer of cassava in the world, the project would boost farmers’ capacity for production thus, showcasing a local product globally and boosting the economic growth for the country,” Tijani said.

Investing In Nutrition
“Investment in nutrition is investing in the economy,” said ex-Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina at a high level policy dialogue meeting on Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture in Nigeria held in Abuja, 2015.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) says over 13 million children are suffering from chronic malnutrition in Nigeria.
While addressing a gathering in Abuja, UNICEF Chief Nutritionist in Nigeria, Arjan de Wagt says that 300,000 children will die in 2016 alone if they are not treated.

“Without treatment, do you know that about 300,000 of these children will die in 2016 alone?” Wagt questions.
“On the foregoing, we call on the Federal, State and Local Governments to create nutrition specific budget lines in the Ministries of Health, Education and Agriculture at the Federal, States and LGA levels in Nigeria.”
Not only the UNICEF, the Civil Society Organisations also calls on the Federal Government to act by making funds accessible for the handling of malnourished children.
Wagt and others believe that creating “nutrition specific budget lines” is one optimal means to prevent malnutrition.

Scary Data of Malnourished Persons
Information by the United Nations (UN) accounts that malnutrition is also an underlying cause of death of 2.6 million children each year, akin to a third of child deaths globally.
Many believe that malnutrition is a major silent crisis in Nigeria and that it contributes to over one third of death in children; being half of all child death worldwide, predominantly in the first 1,000 days of life.

“There are approximately 1.7 million severely, acutely malnourished children under five in Nigeria; accounting for a tenth of the global total. Nearly a thousand Nigerian children die of malnutrition-related causes every day a total of 361,000 each year. Acute malnutrition also leads to stunting of children causing life-long physical limitations and can reduce intellectual capacity,” Wagt says.

Looking for Way Out
Many articles have been written, research and opinion conducted, all in a bid to find a lasting solution to arrest the menace.
Roughly speaking, 70 per cent of Nigerians live below poverty and professionals finger corruption as one chief contributor to the escalation of malnutrition.

“Using poverty indicators such as literacy level, access to safe water, nutrition, infant and maternal mortality, and the number of people living on less than $1 a day, Nigeria is found to rank among the 25 poorest nations in the world below Kenya, Ghana and Zambia (World Bank, 2002),” says Dr. Sulaiman Khalid, Department of Sociology, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto.

Adding, Khalid affirms, “This is in spite of all the efforts and resources devoted for many years to fighting poverty by successive governments in Nigeria. With the support of richer nations and international development institutions, this unsatisfactory results call for a re-examination of policies and practices of poverty eradication in Nigeria.”

Worrisome Agricultural Dimension
The country’s agricultural production which was supposed to be panacea has stayed behind on an infinitesimal dimension and chiefly reliant on rainfall which at most periods is not foreseeable.
Experts and opinion leaders see it as worrisome that 35 per cent of infants in Nigeria are introduced to supplementary feeding too early with such staple foods like cassava and rice which consequently results in malnutrition; whereas the World Health Organisation recommends that children must be fed with multiplicity of nutritional foods.

In 2015, Adesina raised confidence among Nigerians that government was not only geared up towards making sure that more food was produced but that nutritious food to children was expanded and accessible.
He raised hope that in the next four years, 80 million Nigerians would have entrée to bio-fortified cassava, maize and orange flesh sweet potatoes, while the country was partnering with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to convey through mobile phones, Micronutrient Power (MNP) to 10 million children under the age of five in Nigeria.

Importing Food
Records have it that 90 per cent of high-energy foods distributed in Africa are imported of which Adesina was not happy about and stated that it’s the goal of the government to become the largest producer of high-energy foods in Africa.

Early this year, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh at the closing of the 41st National Council on Agriculture held at Kano Government House, laments that the total amounts to $20b per year are expended by Nigerians on importing food into the country.
This is still happening even when Adesina had said, “We have the solutions in our hands and a huge opportunity to build a stronger partnership with Africa’s agribusiness sector to solve Africa’s malnutrition challenge.”

Ways to Curb Malnutrition
Checks further revealed that malnutrition has persisted since the 1960s, but the extent is on the increase today, due to a decrease in quality and quantity of food intake, as a result of neglect to biotechnological agriculture, of which Ogbeh has said that programmes like Udoji of the 1970s are responsible for some of the tragedies facing the agricultural sector in the country.

“It was Udoji programme that made people run away from farms and pursued to become contractors,” Ogbeh says.
Not even the many food policies like the structural adjustment programme (SAP) in 1986 have helped to boost food security in the country.

Catering for Nutrition Problem
Observation is that Agriculture can cater for the awaiting problem of food shortage through crop and livestock enhancements (Biotechnology).
That was stated by an international conference of professionals arranged by the Bank, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the food and agriculture organization (FAO) in 1992.

“Biotechnology has prospects to remedy the problem of food shortage as research in this field aims to develop plant varieties that provide reliable high yield, at the same or lower costs by breeding in qualities such as resistance to diseases, pest and stress factors which will contribute gainfully to food production while maintaining a healthy environment by reducing the amount of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides used in farming,” reported Opuah Abiekwen, Graduate of Biotechnology and Genetics, University of Calabar.

Some practical steps have been taken so far by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to achieve the objectives of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda of Jonathan administration. Under a programme known as Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) for farmers, Jonathan harnessed all the necessary financial and technical support to produce crops on a profitable, commercial scale, by giving farmers access to improved seeds; subsidised fertilisers through vouchers.

Adesina while at a presentation to Nigeria’s economic management team assured that ATA will “focus on attracting private sector agribusinesses to set up processing plants in zones of high food production, to process commodities into food products. The government will enable this by putting in place appropriate fiscal, investment and infrastructure policies for staple crop processing zones.”

Abiekwen, however, added that when he was in 4thyear in 2012, a survey was conducted and the outcome was that 85% of Nigerians didn’t know what biotechnology entailed, creating a sensitisation work on the part of the National Biotechnology Management Agency (NBMA) which was made-up to control the activities of biotechnology.

Onwumere, is a Rivers State based poet, writer and consultant