Fish for Food and Nutrition Security in South Asia: Part 1

By: Dr Ram C. Bhujel, Director of Aqua-Centre, Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand & Sr. Consulting Editor, ICN International

BANGKOK: United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) aims to end hunger and ensure access to nutritious and sufficient food by all people all year round by 2030. Similarly, 2nd Goal aims at ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030. However, still approximately 22% of the world children i.e. 151 million under-5 are still stunted.

One third of women have anemia, a sign of shortage of iron, and a hidden hunger. According to UNICEF (2017) data South Asian countries have the highest malnutrition rates, especially the under-5 child stunting such as Pakistan (45%), Afghanistan (41%), India (38.4%), Indonesia (36.4%), Bangladesh (36%) and Nepal (36%). These facts indicate that the goal of zero hunger or food and nutrition security is not easy to achieve by 2030 unless concerted efforts are made.

The countries facing these challenges need to be very serious in understanding the causes, planning for interventions and implementing result-oriented programs effectively. In these countries there are lot of restrictions on and misconceptions about food associated with deeply rooted cultures and traditions of what and how kids are raised. Major issues are described here for public
information and to encourage further discussions.

Rice and milk mania: Most people believe giving milk of cow, buffalo or goat with rice 3-4 times a day to their kids is adequate. The commonly eaten white rice has mainly carbohydrates with very low protein (average 2.6% crude protein) and milk has only 2-3% protein and 97%water (BNF, 2018). If we feed the kids with rice and milk only, protein intake becomes very low. Therefore, excessive dependence on rice and milk is the cause of child malnutrition. This may apply to adults as well. Simply adding mixture of different pulses or eggs in a meal per day could improve. Soft meat of aquatic food with high digestibility could also serve as solution which can be either in powder or paste form to mix with rice and feed kids once a day or so, as soon as they start taking food could provide enough protein for their physical as well as mental growth.

Vegetarian culture: In some communities killing of animals is unethical; therefore, most people are vegetarians. As the vegetarian food items are normally low in protein and lack certain amino acids, vegetarian diets should include more pulses and nuts, which are relatively expensive and scarce. In South Asia, curry is the most popular item, but most vitamins are lost from vegetables due to high heat when cooked as curry. Consuming green and raw vegetables could be a lot better, but cleanliness and hygiene are another issue. As a result, they usually face malnutrition problem. Aquatic weeds and microalgae could serve good sources of proteins to solve the malnutrition of vegetarians. For some vegetarian communities, fish is acceptable as it is not like terrestrial animals. Therefore, public awareness and specialized programs are needed to improve milk-rice and vegetarian diets to overcome malnutrition problem.

Mutton or goat meat is preferred by most communities of South Asia even when the price is 4-5 times higher than that of fish. A person purchasing a kilo of mutton for a meal could purchase 4 or 5 kilos of fish for 4-5 meals. Having more frequent meals with fish could make huge difference in nutrition. Mutton has high cholesterol and saturated fats, and actual protein is very little. Over 50% weight is due to bones, skins and other inedible parts, which are thrown away. People pay high price for taste what they like, but not for nutrition. Worse
is that they are wasting money to deter the health.

Chicken is most probably the most common animal protein and is considered the best choice due to availability and affordability. However, bird flu scares the people quite often. In many cases, they are loaded with antibiotics and growth hormones. It is still the most common and widely available protein source and it contributes greatly in supplying protein, but eating every meal is monotonous. People like varieties. All chicken breeds give the same taste of meat. When bird flu occurs, majority people look for alternatives. Especially in South East Asia, seafood has been the good alternative. Tilapia has one of them, which is almost parallel to chicken and often called as “Aquatic Chicken”. There are some restaurants in Thailand named as, “3-Star Chicken” which sell more tilapia than chicken.

Pork is very common and popular in Asia and Europe as a cheap source of protein, even though it contains high unhealthy and saturated fat. Per capita consumption of pork in Europe is over 30 kg per year whereas aquatic food is lower than that. Consumption of seafood is increasing while that of pork as well as beef is decreasing. If the aquatic food is more accessible and affordable, its consumption is likely to be high. Similarly, traditional pork eating societies in other countries are also likely to reduce their pork consumption and shift to fish or seafood.

Beef is popular among communities other than Hindus. Its price is often 3-4 times higher than fish, but people are still willing to pay. Beef is red meat and contains high saturated fat; therefore, considered unhealthy and environmentally unsustainable source of protein, as it requires more space, water and food per kg to produce and produce more green-house-gases. Some organizations have estimated that a kilo of beef requires at least 15,000 litres of water. Therefore, beef production and consumption have been discouraged. Per capita consumption in Europe and North America was well above 60 kg per year but it is declining sharply, and people are shifting their food habits from red meats to aquatic food. Similar trends are occurring in gulf countries as well.


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