By Zubeida Mustafa
THE existential threat that Pakistan faces today is the insidious devastation of our human resources. It is a silent crisis, yet to be recognised, as an entire generation of children faces a slow death by malnutrition.
Denied basic nutrients — especially protein — essential for their physical and cognitive growth in the critical first 1,000 days of life, the majority of children never enjoy the same health and mental growth as that of a normal well-fed child. Paediatricians tell us that the damage done during this window of life — from conception till the second birthday — cannot be reversed. We have been warned, but nothing stirs us out of our complacency.
According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2013-14, 45 per cent of children under five in Pakistan are stunted while 30pc are underweight. That means many of our children are denied the capacity to realise fully their learning and growth potential. Malnutrition also affects their mothers who give birth to them.
New solutions are needed to provide nutrition to children.
This is the real food insecurity that Pakistan faces. Its grim implications are not reported by the media because we do not have too many deaths by famine. But, silently, the minds of our children are dying. It is an irony that we cannot feed the little ones when nature has blessed Pakistan with an abundance of wheat. Poverty and the unaffordable price of wheat mean that children are being starved of nutrition. The decline in official subsidies over the years and the rising cost of inputs has put food beyond the reach of the common man.
It is time to think of new solutions, especially in terms of providing nourishment to children. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has the answer in quinoa, which has been dubbed as the miracle grain, the magic food and, above all, the complete protein possessing all the nine essential amino acids needed to build the body and brain of a growing child.
Another major advantage it offers is its low cost of production and its natural adaptability to diverse climatic conditions. FAO, a vocal advocate, declared 2013 as the International Year of the Quinoa.
The grain, it is claimed, has many nutritional properties and is also cheap to grow. Dr Shahzad Basra, professor of agronomy at the Faisalabad Agriculture University, is an ardent supporter of the quinoa and has been doing research on the seed since 2009 when he imported some germplasm from the US Department of Agriculture to test it in Pakistani conditions.
According to him quinoa is gluten-free, rich in protein (15-19 pc), has many minerals such as zinc, magnesium, manganese, etc and a low glycemic index. Wheat, our staple grain, has only 13pc protein. Dr Basra also points out that quinoa is a resilient crop that is not affected by unfavourable weather, thrives in saline soil — clayey or sandy — and is drought resistant. The yield per acre is 800 kilograms. This is much lower than that of wheat. But I presume the yield of quinoa will grow with more research and cultivation.
What I find strange is that given these advantages, why is quinoa not being promoted in a big way in Pakistan? According to Dr Basra’s information, quinoa is cultivated on 800 acres (a little over 300 hectares) or so which means a production of 640,000kg a year, most of which is exported. It is true that a culinary taste for quinoa has yet to be developed. That calls for a public campaign in a land of wheat eaters.
This is worth it as quinoa has done well as the staple food of the Andean region in South America where the indigenous populations have preserved the crop carefully with their traditional knowledge and practices.
From what I understand, the government has not tried to promote quinoa at all. Those who have, including some researchers and cultivators, have focused on its rich potential as an export item. As prices have risen in the world market, local production has increased somewhat in the last three years. As a result, the price of quinoa, Dr Shahzad tells me, has declined in Pakistan from Rs3,500 to Rs400-600 per kilo.
It is time we thought of our children. The government needs to draw up child-centred nutrition programmes focused on quinoa. This is possible if a policy is adopted to indigenise the grain and devise ideal agricultural practices to maximise its production. It need not displace wheat. Given its easy-to-grow properties, tillers could grow it on land that is not fit for wheat cultivation. Why not distribute the ‘barren’ land among small farmers and show them how to grow the magic crop?
Sensible pricing and export policies could ensure affordable prices with export being allowed only above specified ceilings after local nutritional needs have been met. Small entrepreneurs should step forward to produce cereal and baby food.