Fish consumption fights malnourishment in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has emerged as one of the top 10 fish producing countries globally, with a remarkable growth in freshwater aquaculture over the past decade. This success presents an opportunity to further increase the overall volume and variety of fish production, including hilsa and marine fisheries, to meet domestic consumption needs and boost export earnings.

Fish, both from capture and culture, plays a pivotal role in ensuring national food and nutrition security. Despite the increased production of fish and agricultural growth, Bangladesh still faces the challenge of achieving optimal nourishment and good health for its population.

It is disheartening that many people in Bangladesh suffer from “silent hunger” or malnourishment, despite the abundance of fish and food available in the markets. Approximately 20 million women and children are malnourished, with women experiencing anemia and children and adolescents suffering from stunting. Their diets lack the necessary nutrients to keep them healthy.

Addressing Malnourishment through Fish Selection and Nutrition Education

To eliminate malnourishment in Bangladesh, it is crucial to focus on selecting fish species that provide essential nutrients, establishing a flexible and improved supply chain, raising awareness through nutrition education, and ensuring guaranteed portion sizes in diets for vulnerable populations.

Meeting the Nutritional Needs of the Population

With a fish production of 4.3 million metric tons, Bangladesh has successfully exceeded the target of recommended per capita fish consumption of 60g, with an availability of 63g per capita. Currently, the country produces enough fish to meet the nutrition requirements of its population.

Aquaculture contributes to 56 percent of the total fish production, with a significant portion coming from rural areas, including household ponds. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the average daily fish consumption in rural and urban poor households falls below the national average, affecting their nutritional needs. Therefore, efforts should be made to improve the accessibility, affordability, storage, quality, and utilization of fish to ensure its optimal consumption.

Food Security, Nutrition, and Sustainable Development Goals

Food security and nutrition have gained significant global attention, becoming a priority agenda known as Sustainable Development Goal-2: “to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition.”

Efforts by the government of Bangladesh over the past decade have shown promising results, with a decline in severe underweight prevalence among children from 31.9 percent in 2012 to 22.6 percent in 2019, and a reduction in moderate to severe stunting from 42 percent to 28 percent during the same period. However, malnourishment still affects 39 percent of women.

Pregnant women, new mothers, and children have limited access to food containing essential micronutrients, leading to high levels of malnutrition. Increasing fish consumption, especially specific species rich in micronutrients and essential elements such as calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin A, and vitamin B12, can contribute to normal growth, brain development, cognition, and the reduction of anemia among women.

Promoting Nutrient-rich Indigenous Small Fish and Sustainable Aquaculture

While there has been tremendous success in the aquaculture of carps, pangas, and tilapia, rural and urban populations are missing out on the nutritional benefits of nutrient-rich small fish. These small fish were once abundant in inland water bodies and available for free harvesting. Efforts should be made to promote innovative nutrient-sensitive aquaculture by combining small fish with carps and tilapia in small-scale ponds and rice fields. This approach allows families to consume small fish while selling larger fish for household income.

Collaboration for Nutrition-sensitive Aquaculture Technologies and Improved Distribution

Government agencies such as the Department of Fisheries (DOF), Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI), and Bangladesh Agricultural University, along with international and non-governmental organizations, should develop science-based nutrition-sensitive aquaculture technologies. These technologies should be nutritionally valuable, economically beneficial, socially acceptable, and environmentally sustainable.

To enhance distribution, facilities such as cold storage, fish drying, salting, ice production, and efficient transportation for cultured fish, marine fish, and hilsa are necessary. This will reduce waste, ensure swift availability, and promote equitable market distribution. Improvements in local fish markets and the establishment of market hubs in major fish-producing and landing sites can further support these goals.

Creating Opportunities for Fish Consumption

Fish can be incorporated into school feeding programs, ensuring that children receive the necessary nutrients, minerals, and protein. Hospitals can also include fish as a regular part of patient diets, contributing to their recovery and well-being.

Emphasizing the Role of Fish in the Diet

Further efforts are required to promote fish as an essential component of the Bangladeshi diet, providing all essential nutrients, minerals, and protein. This includes selecting the right species of mineral and nutrient-rich fish for production, establishing an efficient fish distribution supply chain, promoting fish as a staple food, and providing proper nutrition education. These initiatives will help overcome the barriers to malnourishment in the country and improve the overall health of the population.

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