Malnutrition
Posted on September 11th, 2022

Sugath Kulatunga

It was refeshing to see our Parliament debating for two days on a critical problem of child malnutrition facing the country, without wasting time on splitting hairs on political issues. It is sad that the debate was triggered not on a finding of the government but on a statement made by the UNICEF based on a report made in 2018 on acute malnutrition and protein deficiency in children of our country.  the UNICEF had described a desperate situation of this problem and made an urgent appeal for donations. The media sensationalized the comments without revealing the date of the findings. With Corvid ravaging the economy during the last two years the situation must be much worse today. The crisis has aggravated with the devaluation and food inflation reaching close to 100.

UNICEF may have gone to town now, due to the developing national disaster and to raise funds. The fund-raising objective for the agency is like the unsupported statement made by the Head of the WHO visiting Sri Lanka after the Tsunami, when she said that there would be more deaths by disease than caused by the Tsunami.

Whether the international bodies sound an alarm or not the bitter fact is that there is a severe problem of malnutrition and protein deficiency in children and pregnant mothers among the economically less privileged segments of our community. The present spike in bread and wheat flour prices will make the problem more acute among the urban poor and the plantation community. Specially in urban areas the convenient breakfast is bread. The increase in bread prices will make many school children skip breakfast. In this background we are heading for a stunted nation with poor health and underdeveloped brain power.

The present tragedy is that the media and politicians make a loud noise about the problem but rarely make any useful and specific suggestion on the solution. In Chinese Wei-Ji is the word for crisis.” It is composed of two words; Wei meaning danger” and Ji meaning opportunity”—hence the saying Every crisis is an opportunity!”

Opportunities and problems do not fall from manna. They are manmade. Present crisis in nutrition has its roots in dismal political decisions, administrative laxity, and social dogma.

The free supply of wheat flour/grain under PL 480 changed our food habits and made us addicted to wheat flour products. The problem got aggravated with the entry of the Prima project where we provide them with the grain which is milled by them and sold to us minus the bran and the wheat germ. This situation could have been corrected when the Prima BOT agreement terminated after 20 years. But CBK sold the complex back to Singapore and allowed them to continue to give us refined flour devoid of nutrition. Consumption of refined flour products minus these nutrients is suggested as one reason for malnutrition among school children who consume the convenient food for breakfast. Food technologists have not considered developing a breakfast cereal with local grains and pulses.as done even in some African countries.

Protein deficiency is highlighted as a main outcome of malnutrition in children and pregnant mothers. Animal proteins are more important in filling this need. In the Agriculture plan of Philip Gunawardhana in late 1950s there was a comprehensive plan for self-sufficiency and wide availability of animal products. This plan was neglected by succeeding governments. If the artificial insemination programs implemented at that time were continued by now SL would have an upgraded and productive cattle herd for milk production. instead, recently governments have been interested in overnight solution of importing cows which was a scam and a disaster. SL should go back to AI where quality semen can be easily imported. Government can follow the example of the privately run Ambewela Farm.

Milk is a major source of nutrition. Sri Lanka has been good at slaughtering the national cattle herd but not done enough to upgrade them.

The dairy farmer is not given a fair price for the liquid milk whereas the price of milk powder has continuously increased with the present price fixed at Rs. 2400 per KG. (One kg of milk powder requires 8 liters of fresh milk). Amul which is the largest dairy cooperative in India pays 60 percent of the cost of their milk packs to the producer. If processing, packeting, and marketing cost is calculated even at 50 % of the total cost, fresh milk could be paid 1200/8 = Rs 150. At this price there will be more production and availability of fresh milk. It is also necessary to check the quality of milk powder packets in the market for sugar content and liquid milk cartons for adulteration with water.

There is hardly any cream in cartons labelled full cream.

In India the goat is considered the poor man’s cow. In the Far East flocks of ducks in thousands are seen in the rural areas. These sources of animal products are not adequately tapped.  

In the early 60s Agriculture Ministry banned the import of eggs and launched an island wide program on small scale deep litter and free-range poultry to increase the availability, reduction of prices and more consumption of egg. This was backed with easy loans from the Peoples’ Bank and enhanced veterinary services. In a few months the country was made self-sufficient with eggs. This also increased the consumption of eggs and chicken and provided productive employment to many small breeders.

Fish is an excellent food to prevent malnutrition. But all governments have neglected tapping the marine resources even within our 200 mile economic Zone. Today fish prices have gone beyond even the middle class. Fresh water fisheries had a good start but was banned by a previous President. It is restored now. But a fish that can be bred on small scale is not promoted. Breeding of catfish which could be bred in earthen ponds (mud ponds) can be a cheap source of protein. Catfish can also be a good export commodity. Vietnam exports around US$ 2 billion worth of catfish to the USA where it is considered a delicacy.

Recently the media reported a recommendation by medical authorities that powdered fried sprats added to meals as a good source of protein. A better and cheaper source would be dried Murunga leaves which has 25 percent protein. Hybrid Murunga plants can provide harvests of leaves in six months. Seeds of hybrid murunga can be imported from South India.

SL has a variety of Yams which are not part of the regular diet of the people.  Our authorities do not seem to be in touch with international agencies engaged in the development of yams. This has deprived diversity in our diet. Sri Lankans consume more rice in their meals than vegetables, meat, and fish. In the Far Eastern countries like Thailand and the Philippines a normal meal has only one cup of rice but consists of plenty of other items. We also do not consume fruits like in those countries. Our horticulture has been neglected. Lack of variety in our diet is another cause of malnutrition.

There is also a cultural factor which discourage meat eating specially eating beef which was the cheapest meat in the past. Slaughter of animals is looked down upon whereas there is no objection on killing of fish although fish die of a painful death of suffocation when taken out of water.

There is a serious social problem where the father, the breadwinner in the family get addicted to drugs, alcohol or tobacco. A substantial amount of the meagre earnings of the father is spent on these addictions depriving the children of healthy meals. The government is totally committed against drugs, but alcohol and tobacco continue to be rich sources of government revenue. Restrictions on legal alcohol would lead to more consumption of illegal brew but the more harmful tobacco is given a free leash. It is easily controlled by banning the cultivation of tobacco which no government is prepared to do.

Pulses are a rich source of nutrients, and most can be cultivated in the country. But the free trade policy allowed their imports discouraging their production locally. Masoor dhal is the most popular pulse and is imported in large volumes at high price. Before 1977 a local substitute named Maha Illuppalama or Mi Dhal was produced but disappeared with the masoor dhal imports. More of this and other pulses and ground nuts should be produced here to improve the variety and richness in our diet. Sorghum is a hardy cereal which tolerates arid and infertile conditions. It is called the poor man’s maize. It was grown widely some time back but is imported now.

In the past children were given a wholesome lunch in the school. This helped to improve the health of the children and encouraged them to attend school. This in the long run will save in our health budget.

The SL Agricultural authorities have concentrated on rice, where they have done well but neglected other crops and horticulture. They can contribute more to improve the nutrition deficiency in the population.

Let us believe in Wei-Ji.

Sugath Kulatunga

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