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February 23, 2020

Diversifying food production to combat malnutrition


February 23, 2020

HYDERABAD: Two peasant women, Baghan Kolhi and Ram Bai Kolhi, were preparing to cultivate vegetables in some part of their wide courtyard in village Pir Maha Wali, Nawabshah district.

They have got seedlings of tomato, chilli and onion from a nearby private nursery to grow safe organic food for their consumption.

With the arrival of spring, these women seem optimistic about adopting the approach of producing five-colour food varieties, including vegetables and fruits to maintain their health.

Mustafa Nangraj, the founder of five-colour approach to produce nutritious food for maintaining health, believes that existing farming system is not nutrition focused. Therefore, most of the population does not have access to diverse food sources, including fruits and vegetables, which was the reason behind severe malnutrition in Sindh.

Nangraj, a researcher and trainer, associated with Sindh Agriculture Extension, has been working with farmer communities for the last 10 years through participatory research approach, which, he said, was nutrition and income smart.

The five colours include white, red-brown, yellow-orange, green, and blue-purple. He defines each colour in variety of vegetables and fruits as per cultivation season, and said consumption of these five colour-based vegetables and fruits could help prevent malnutrition.

“White vegetables and fruits support the immune system, green helps in detoxification, purple-blue strengthens memory and promotes longevity, red-brown fruits and vegetables are good for heart health, and yellow-orange products have benefits in terms of beauty, digestion and cancer prevention,” he said.

He believes that good health needs regular consumption of fruits and vegetables falling in the range of these five colours. He is working with peasant communities in their areas to identify and consume these five colour-based varieties of foods, recognising their nutritional value.

This approach also stresses the importance and social significance of the food and agricultural sector for supporting rural livelihoods. Farmers can get maximum benefit from market from the sale of surplus production.

This colour-based approach in agriculture is being implemented for the first time in 600 villages of 21 districts of Sindh. It is being communicated to around 27,000 community members, both men and women, along with plantation of 162,627 five-colour fruit trees in communities to help reduce malnutrition and increase agricultural productivity.

Nazia Mangrio, a team member who motivates peasant women in different areas, said baseline research shows that these people did not have diversified food during their work. Many continued to eat the same vegetables that were cheaper. “Thus, there was dire need of different approaches and models in agriculture for addressing the problem of malnutrition in different areas.”

Talking about engaging women farmers in this task, she believes that women play a major role in agriculture at this crucial time when migration of young men to cities and towns is a common phenomenon in different areas due to financial pressure, poverty and inaccessibility to food.

“Women have a number of tasks, such as weeding, livestock rearing, collecting fodder grass, and local food processing and conservation. This is in addition to routine chores, which include fetching water for household use, sometimes from long distance.”

It was also observed that productivity and income of the existing agricultural practices was not efficient and effective for farmers. Since these farmer women have inherited this work of cultivation, they learn it easily to find better sources of livelihood for their survival, Nazia Mangrio said.

They seem capable to take care of plants, manage weeds and get rid of pests through neem leaves and other organic matters to protect the crops from any crop diseases, she added.

Village Pir Maha Wali is located near the River Indus catchment area, where communities have witnessed the change around them in terms of depleting forest tree cover and migration of herder families towards different directions, mainly nearby small urban settlements.

Many of these women have traditional experience of rearing animals and collecting forest products for market. After the forest area reduced, they shifted hands to alternative sources of income, such as cultivating vegetables and fruits like melons and watermelons.

With these traditions existing within the community, it was easier for the women to adapt to the five-colour vegetable and fruits approach to augment nutritious intake.

Earlier, despite continuous work for long hours throughout the day, the women neither had proper food diet nor did they earn income to ease their life. They also observed that due to certain changes in terms of soil fertility, excessive use of chemical input, water scarcity and substandard seeds, crop productivity was low. This also resulted in low income, leaving not enough room to diversify food sources.

Therefore, adaptive and participatory research to develop new and innovative five-colour agricultural approach, which was nutrition-smart, was helping the community, Mustafa Nangraj, the founder of the five-colour approach said.

The key resources such as water, land and labour were not being utilised properly, thus productivity and profitability both were decreasing, he said, adding that looking at this situation, Sindh needs a new agricultural approach that focused on nutrition and higher productivity to make agriculture more profitable for rural communities.

Malnutrition is a critical issue for the whole country, including the province of Sindh that contributes significantly to the vicious cycle of poverty.

Starting with malnourished mothers, who give birth to malnourished children, the problem shadows people throughout their life—leading to more health problems throughout their lifetime, lower economic productivity and lower lifetime earnings.

Nangraj quoted research, which estimates that four percent to 11 percent of national gross domestic product (GDP) could be lost due to the impacts of malnutrition.

The malnutrition mainly stunting and wasting in long run was expected to affect labour productivity, and those who have been in the state of stunting and wasting would face difficulties in decent labour of the digital world in future.

“Therefore, it is urgently needed to popularise the approach for awareness of communities around this subject through modern and effective extension cultivation of such fruits and vegetables,” Nangraj added.