The number of those going hungry has gone down considerably in Bangladesh and underweight rates have almost halved. Wasting rates are also almost half and the country was at a threshold. But there is no room for complacence. Diets are not diversifying and the consumption of highly processed food is increasing.

These observations were made at a recent roundtable on ‘SDG: Monitoring Food and Nutrition Commitments’. Organised jointly by the daily Prothom Alo and GAIN (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition), the roundtable took place on Thursday at the daily’s Kawran Bazar office in the capital city.

On a global level, one in three people are malnourished, executive director of GAIN, Lawrence Haddad, observed. Two billion were deficient in vitamins and minerals and 821 million suffered from chronic hunger.

“Nutrition status is a marker of development and a maker of development,” he said, adding that malnutrition reduction accelerates poverty reduction.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 1, 2, 3, 17 and 12 dealt with nutrition. He pointed to the impact malnutrition had on survival, productivity and economic growth too, saying that huge personal losses resulted from malnutrition.

“However, diet quality does not automatically improve with income growth,” Haddad observed, “It takes a long time before income growth translates into improved diet.”

In Bangladesh, when it came to healthy foods, affordability and accessibility was a problem.

Highlighting the objective of GAIN, its executive director said this aimed at the improved consumption of safe and nutritious food for all, especially the most vulnerable. He gave an example of the organisation's work in Kenya where they offered consumer incentive as consumers were drivers of change. These incentives included colourful posters not dictating ‘this food is good for you’ or ‘that food is good for you’, but simply associating healthy foods with persons reaching their goals in their lives.

Incentives were also effective for small and medium enterprises (SME’s). There were a lot of funds for the agriculture sector, but not for nutritious food. This was more export oriented.

“Workplace nutrition programmes are important. We are working with the garment sector in Bangladesh in this regard and there had been a reduction in the prevalence of anaemia,” observed Haddad. He felt investors should be brought on board the nutrition programme as they had the clout to make businesses change in a positive manner.

Referring to SDGs, Haddad said that Bangladesh would probably meet the targeted 20 per cent for stunting by 2030, but that there were other goals that needed to be met. It was imperative to deal with under-nutrition, over-nutrition, climate change and several other factors.

Haddad pointed to the forthcoming Japan Nutrition for Growth Summit 2020 to be held in December this year, saying that it was time to reflect on what commitments were are going to make at the summit.

Chief guest at the roundtable Md Mujibul Haque MP, also chairman of the standing committee on the ministry of labour and employment, said that as it was on the verge of being a mid-income country, Bangladesh will need a more productive and strong workforce. He spoke of the government initiative to reduce micro-nutrient deficiency. He highlighted the government’s focus on SDG’s and said after surmounting huge challenges in the past, they would be able to meet this challenge too. “We can reach the nutrition target because that is the type of nation we are,” he said.

Secretary-in-charge (member) of the planning ministry, Zakir Hossain Akhanda, said that the government had attached highest priority to poverty reduction and that poverty had been halved. “The government is pledge-bound to improve the nutritional status and there is need for a pragmatic approach for the vulnerable and the poor.” He pointed to the lack of animal protein and said that the government is taking up new projects to address the issue.

Ambassador of the Netherlands, Harry Verweij, highlighted that the industrial sector had an important role to play. He said the scenario in Bangladesh was changing and it was no longer about a donor to recipient relationship. The relationship was on more equal footing and so called for more equal input.

He said every farmer in an entrepreneur and Bangladesh already had big agricultural businesses too. He said there was now a new vision of how to do agriculture in Bangladesh, with new ventures and new approaches. He said the investors, the entrepreneurs had the money and they now had to make investment in this sector.

Fernholz Manfred, team leader of the Delegation of the European Union in Bangladesh, said that the Japan summit was a good opportunity for Bangladesh to renew its food and nutrition commitment. He said that country commitment should focus on the fast changing country context. “Bangladesh is doing well in reducing under-nutrition, but needs to push for a multi-sectoral approach to advance further,” he said, adding that the efforts must not just be nutrition specific, but nutrition sensitive.

He said that healthy diets were expensive and not affordable by everyone. So work must be done on making such diet affordable. Speaking about statistics, he said percentages could be misleading. “We are talking about over 5 million children in a state of protracted poverty,” he said, adding that education and investing in children was crucial.

Country representative of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Robert Simpson highlighted the need for an integrated food system approach. “Don’t disconnect food from environment,” he cautioned, also calling for focus on the vital blue economy and on diversification of produce.

Line director (NNS) SM Mustafizur Rahman of the Institute of Public Health Nutrition, said, “Our target is simple- elimination of poverty. Still 20 per cent of the people go to bed hungry. We are self-sufficient in cereal production, but are deficient in protein. Our problems are in stunting, wasting and so on.”

He pointed to the government’s safety net programme, but admitted to the lack of coordination among the various government programmes, the NGO programmes and other initiatives.

Assistant secretary of the agricultural ministry, Ruhul Amin Talukdar, said Bangladesh faced plenty of challenges, particularly as it was on the verge of changing its status from and LDC to a mid-income developing country, where the LDF privileges could be reduced.

He said it was important to have a good understanding of the various challenges such as land scarcity, pollution, salinity and more, saying that the government was focusing on these, with its limited resources. He pointed to the pragmatic policies of the government, including ensuring nutrition for the farmer households. He highlighted the need to mobilise cooperatives and said that the government was looking into such mechanisms at the rural level.

“We need support from stakeholders,” he said, adding that it was disheartening to see a reduction in ODA in agriculture.

Badrul Arefin, director general FPMU, Bangladesh National Nutrition Council, said that safe and nutritious food to all citizens at all times was a priority of the government’s election manifesto. He said that nutrition messages with colourful cartoons would be printed in the inside covers of textbooks so that this information was retained by the child, their parents and their siblings.

World Food Programme (WFP) country representative Richard Ragan said, “The public sector is not the solution. The private sector and everyone has to get their hands around this.” He spoke of WFP’s rice fortification programme funded by the Dutch, where 6 million people were targeted in the pilot project. He compared this to the efficacy of UNICEF’s iodised salt initiative.

He brought up the Rohingya refugee issue, and mentioned how donors had shifted their financing method. Cash was now being used to set up shops where the people could use credit cards to get various essentials. This was more dignified and a change in paradigm in the way things are done. It was a business model and these shops benefitted all concerned.

Piyali Mustaphi, chief of nutrition, UNICEF, said that a 2019 survey showed a reduction of stunting.

but “we still have 3.9 children stunted, which is a huge number.” Urban slums saw a high rate of malnutrition.

She also saw child marriage as one of the major a causes of the problem, with high rick pregnancies leading to infants born with a disadvantage.

With Prothom Alo’s associate editor starting the ball rolling on the roundtable, the discussion was also joined by GAIN country director Rudaba Khondker, DG of BNCC Shah Nawaz, additional secretary of the CHT affairs ministry Md Abdus Sattar, country manager of Alive and Thrive Zeba Mahmud, RAO senior nutritionist Lalita Bhattacharjee, Roy Fenn of USAID and others.