Championing Better Nutrition in South Asia

As South Asian countries become more prosperous, governments, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders across the region have shifted their attention from simply providing sufficient calories to ensuring that diets include the right nutrients, thus hoping to tackle malnutrition at the root.

But despite progress in recent decades, South Asia still faces challenges in reducing malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.

Indeed, there is a difference between food, in general, and nutritious food.

While food may provide enough calories for a day, nutritious food packs adequate calories as well as micro and macro-nutrients, including vitamins and minerals that are essential to good health.

One way to achieve good nutrition is by consuming high impact and underrepresented foods, such as fish, algae, animal source foods such as poultry and eggs, as well as new and old heritage crops, like millet and legumes.

On June 17-18, more than 120 government officials, civil society organizations, private sector members, international donors, practitioners, and stakeholders from around South Asia convened at a regional roundtable High Impact and Underrepresented Nutrition Sensitive Food Systems in South Asia in Bangkok, Thailand.

The event highlighted the role of nutrition-sensitive and nutrition-specific food systems in improving diets and emphasized the role of underrepresented and high impact crops to achieve that goal.

The roundtable drew on the latest evidence from current food and nutrition policies and programs from around the region.

Opening the event, Dr. Birgit Hansl, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand, enticed participants to work collaboratively, together, to improve nutrition. She exhorted the audience to think how information on nutritious, high impact and underrepresented crops can be disseminated [and] how we can ensure a life-long chain of learning about nutritious, high impact, and underrepresented foods Think of all we can learn together � and how we can turn these ideas and lessons into action.

Later that day, Kjersti RA�dsmoen, the Ambassador-designate to Thailand and Cambodia from Norway, underscored that point, emphasizing that we have more knowledge together than we have alone.

"Policies need to be research and science-driven. Crops like millet, quinoa, and buckwheat are very nutritious but underutilized."

The Hon'ble Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor

Minister for Agriculture and Forests from the Royal Government of Bhutan

Rising to the challenge, participants set out to make new connections and establish creative partnerships thorough dynamic panel discussions, lively coffee breaks, and vibrant conversations.

For two days, participants considered a broad range of topics, from engaging the private sector to better addressing and promoting underrepresented and indigenous crops.

At the opening high-level panel, led by Dr. Pawan Patil of the World Bank and Dr. Fabrice DeClerck, the EAT Science Director/Bioversity, brought the audience together to engage on the challenges and opportunities facing South Asia.

Dr. Patil pushed listeners to consider the blue economy which is the sustainable use of ocean resources for growth, improved livelihoods, and food � while simultaneously improving ocean health.

Following the same logic, Dr. Stineke Oenema, Coordinator of the UNSCN, encouraged people to think beyond food staples, stressing that "we need to diversify our diets and move away from high reliance on rice, wheat and maize, and some meat sources."

Dr. Fabrice DeClerck contributed to multiple panels and discussions, encouraging creative and innovative thinking and solutions. He pushed governments, policymakers, and stakeholders to move beyond typical tropes, such as all processed foods are bad, noting in that regard that "we need nutrition positive processed foods! We need these to be tasty and affordable. We need to make them accessible and available."


Participants enjoyed a cooking demonstration from Chef Black of Blackitch Aristan Kitchen in Chang Mai, Thailand. He showed how to use various underrepresented and high impact crops in two different recipes: (1) khao soi, noodle soup with grilled tofu and (2) rice balls stuffed with grilled fish. Here Chef Black and his assistant create the curry paste for khao soi using a mortar and pestle. Photo Credit: World Bank

Nutrition Successes from Around South Asia

In one session, Ms. Inoshi Sharm from the Indian Revenue Service for the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), spoke of her success in adopting a 360-degree approach to improving nutrition, acknowledging that while one may eat healthy at home, such opportunities may not exist in school or at work. Her work finds ways to make healthy choices, easy choices, and to create healthy food environments across the country.

In another session, Mr. Mahesh Sharma, CEO of Anamolbiu Pvt. Ltd, a seed company in Nepal, specializing in heritage crops, spoke about his company's successful approach to the triple bottom line. By being economically, environmentally, and socially conscious has helped, he said, his company to thrive in distributing underrepresented, heritage crops across Nepal.

Many more success stories were shared and opportunities for collaboration and scaling up projects were identified.

The event was sponsored by the South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI), a partnership administered by the World Bank with funding from the UK Government, and the European Commission.

Other partners were Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, EAT, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, World Food Program, Bioversity International, ICRISAT, World Vegetable Center, DSM, Food Industry Asia, IFPRI, UNSCN, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Through these events, SAFANSI supports regional multi-sectoral, collaborative efforts towards more integrated food and nutrition security actions, working with existing knowledge networks to develop a strong cadre of food and nutrition advocates, policymakers, and practitioners across South Asia.

Attendees were eager to continue discussions, creating linkages, sharing policies and knowledge with one another.

Source: The World Bank