Is India Condemning its Children to Brain Damage?

While researching the causes of the sugar crisis in Pakistan earlier this month, I found that, on a per capita basis, Pakistanis consume significantly more of almost everything they eat than their neighbors, including wheat, dairy, meat, poultry and sugar. The only comparable category between Indians and Pakistanis are fruits and vegetables, of which both use less than 100 grams a day.

This was before the shameful deaths of several destitute Karachi women scrambling to grab free wheat bags stole the headlines.

In spite of the fact that there is about 22% malnutrition in Pakistan and the child malnutrition being much higher at 40% (versus India's 46%), the average per capita calorie intake of about 2500 calories is within normal range. But the nutritional balance necessary for good health appears to be lacking in Pakistanis' dietary habits. One way to alleviate the sugar crisis in Pakistan is to reduce sugar consumption and substitute it with greater intake of fruits and vegetables. There is an urgent need for better health and nutritional education through strong public-private partnership to promote healthier eating in Pakistan.

Among other basic food commodities, per million population wheat consumption in Pakistan is 115,000 metric tons versus 63,000 metric tons in India, according to published data.

Pakistanis consume over 25 Kg of sugar per person versus India's 20Kg.

According to the FAO, the average dairy consumption of the developing countries is still very low (45 kg of all dairy products in liquid milk equivalent), compared with the average of 220 kg in the industrial countries. Few developing countries have per capita consumption exceeding 150 kg (Argentina, Uruguay and some pastoral countries in the Sudano-Sahelian zone of Africa). Among the most populous countries, only Pakistan, at 153 kg per capita, has such a level. In South Asia, where milk and dairy products are preferred foods, India has only 64 kg and Bangladesh 14 kg. East Asia has only 10 kg.

While it remains very low by world standards, meat and poultry consumption has also increased significantly in Pakistan over the last decade. Per capita availability of eggs went from 23 in 1991 to 43 in 2005, according to research by N. Daghir. Per capita meat consumption in Pakistan now stands at 12.4 Kg versus India's 4.6 Kg.

In addition to relatively large per capita wheat and sugar consumption, Pakistanis also consume significantly higher amounts of meat, poultry and milk products than other South Asian nations, getting more protein and almost half their daily, per capita calorie intake from non-food-grain sources.

About two weeks after the widely reported wheat deaths in Karachi, there is a new damning British report about the serious malnutrition affecting Indian children.

The new British government report on child hunger and malnutrition in India says the nation is an "economic powerhouse" but a "nutritional weakling". Here is an excerpt from Times online story:

India is condemning another generation to brain damage, poor education and early death by failing to meet its targets for tackling the malnutrition that affects almost half of its children, a study backed by the British Government concluded yesterday.

The country is an “economic powerhouse but a nutritional weakling”, said the report by the British-based Institute of Development Studies (IDS), which incorporated papers by more than 20 India analysts. It said that despite India’s recent economic boom, at least 46 per cent of children up to the age of 3 still suffer from malnutrition, making the country home to a third of the world’s malnourished children. The UN defines malnutrition as a state in which an individual can no longer maintain natural bodily capacities such as growth, pregnancy, lactation, learning abilities, physical work and resisting and recovering from disease.

In 2001, India committed to the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving its number of hungry by 2015. China has already met its target. India, though, will not meet its goal until 2043, based on its current rate of progress, the IDS report concluded.

“It’s the contrast between India’s fantastic economic growth and its persistent malnutrition which is so shocking,” Lawrence Haddad, director of the IDS, told The Times. He said that an average of 6,000 children died every day in India; 2,000-3,000 of them from malnutrition.

Related Links:

FAO Statistics

Grinding Poverty in Resurgent India

Pakistan's Sugar Crisis

Agricultural Diversification in South Asia

Nutrition in Pakistan

FAO Report on Food Consumption Patterns

Wheat Consumption in India and Pakistan

World of Sugar

Pakistan's Livestock Farming


Riaz Haq said…
Here's Russian analyst Anatol Karlin on India's prospects and its comparison with China:

It is not a secret to longtime readers of this blog that I rate India’s prospects far more pessimistically than I do China’s. My main reason is I do not share the delusion that democracy is a panacea and that whatever advantage in this sphere India has is more than outweighed by China’s lead in any number of other areas ranging from infrastructure and fiscal sustainability to child malnutrition and corruption. However, one of the biggest and certainly most critical gaps is in educational attainment, which is the most important component of human capital – the key factor underlying all productivity increases and longterm economic growth. China’s literacy rate is 96%, whereas Indian literacy is still far from universal at just 74%.
The big problem, until recently, was that there was no internationalized student testing data for either China or India. (There was data for cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai, but it was not very useful because they are hardly representative of China). An alternative approach was to compare national IQ’s, in which China usually scored 100-105 and India scored in the low 80′s. But this method has methodological flaws because the IQ tests aren’t consistent across countries. (This, incidentally, also makes this approach a punching bag for PC enforcers who can’t bear to entertain the possibility of differing IQ’s across national and ethnic groups).
Many Indians like to see themselves as equal competitors to China, and are encouraged in their endeavour by gushing Western editorials and Tom Friedman drones who praise their few islands of programming prowess – in reality, much of which is actually pretty low-level stuff – and widespread knowledge of the English language (which makes India a good destination for call centers but not much else), while ignoring the various aspects of Indian life – the caste system, malnutrition, stupendously bad schools – that are holding them back. The low quality of Indians human capital reveals the “demographic dividend” that India is supposed to enjoy in the coming decades as the wild fantasies of what Sailer rightly calls ”Davos Man craziness at its craziest.” A large cohort of young people is worse than useless when most of them are functionally illiterate and innumerate; instead of fostering well-compensated jobs that drive productivity forwards, they will form reservoirs of poverty and potential instability.

Instead of buying into their own rhetoric of a “India shining”, Indians would be better served by focusing on the nitty gritty of bringing childhood malnutrition DOWN to Sub-Saharan African levels, achieving the life expectancy of late Maoist China, and moving up at least to the level of a Mexico or Moldova in numeracy and science skills. Because as long as India’s human capital remains at the bottom of the global league tables so will the prosperity of its citizens....
Riaz Haq said…
Here's an ET story on child malnutrition in Pakistan:

Malnutrition in some parts of Pakistan is as high as in Africa, says Jean-Luc Siblot, World Food Programme’s country representative for Pakistan.

He was talking at a seminar organised on Tuesday to discuss the critical question of food security and analyse the government’s National Zero Hunger Action Plan (NZHAP).

The $16 billion five-year plan aims to address food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition issues by reaching out to almost 61 million people across the country.

The programme includes provision of nutritious and fortified food commodities to the most food insecure and vulnerable sections of society, particularly malnourished children, pregnant women and primary school children. It also features a school feed programme and establishment of “zero hunger shops” in 45 extremely food insecure districts of Pakistan.

Siblot said the programme reflects a very high level of commitment towards addressing the problem of hunger and malnutrition in Pakistan. Other experts echoed his sentiment but added that the plan needs to be implemented swiftly.

Dr Chaudhry Inayat of Ministry of National Food Security and Research said the plan comprises of seven components including policy reforms, establishment of a National Food Security Council, targeted social safety nets, capacity building of the ministry and partnership with international agencies.

The NZHAP, drafted after rigorous consultations with various stakeholders, takes into consideration the dimensions of food insecurity in Pakistan and the steps to be taken to address the problem, Dr Inayat said.

Kevin Gallagher, Country Representative United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, speaking at the seminar said that the Zero Hunger Plan was in compliance with the governments “right to food” obligation, which entails provision of nutritious food for everyone.

“It would provide opportunities to vulnerable people who also place conditional obligation on them to secure food by their own,” he said.

Silvia, a UNICEF representative, said that it was alarming to see the stagnant figures of malnutrition in the country. Rates of chronic malnutrition are as high as 50% and that a third of children born in Pakistan are underweight.

“The problem is not with the children but with mothers who do not meet their nutritional needs during pregnancy,” she said...
Riaz Haq said…
Here's an NPR story of orange sweet potato helping improve nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa:

A regular old orange-colored sweet potato might not seem too exciting to many of us.

But in parts of Africa, that sweet potato is very exciting to public health experts who see it as a living vitamin A supplement. A campaign to promote orange varieties of sweet potatoes in Mozambique and Uganda (instead of the white or yellow ones that are more commonly grown there) now seems to be succeeding. (Check out this cool infographic on the campaign.) It's a sign that a new approach to improving nutrition among the world's poor might actually work.

That approach is called biofortification: adding crucial nutrients to food biologically, by breeding better varieties of crops that poor people already eat.

Howarth Bouis is one of the people who came up with this idea, and he's been promoting it for the past two decades. He's an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., and director of an international effort called HarvestPlus that's creating more nutritious crops. But the idea of biofortification, he explains, grew out of earlier studies of vitamin supplements that nutritionists carried out in Asia and Africa.

In some cases, they found that just giving malnourished children a vitamin A capsule every six months cut the death rate among those children by about 25 percent. "This number really astounded the nutrition community," says Bouis. "Then they started looking at iron and zinc and iodine deficiencies." They discovered that these micronutrients make a huge difference in people's health.
But the idea of biofortification didn't immediately catch on. Public health experts worried it would be a waste of money; crop breeders feared low yields and rejection by the population if the crops looked different.

Two decades later, the advocates have come up with varieties of some crops that have more micronutrients. The HarvestPlus effort is using traditional plant breeding. Others have created a genetically engineered "golden rice," which provides more vitamin A.

Their first real success in the field, though, is the orange sweet potato.

In several African countries, including Uganda and Mozambique, subsistence farmers grow a lot of sweet potatoes. They've been doing it for centuries, ever since the Portuguese brought the first sweet potatoes here from Latin America.

The sweet potatoes that arrived in Africa, however, were white or yellow. Unfortunately, those sweet potatoes don't contain any beta carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A.

But the orange flesh of the North American sweet potato does.

So when Bouis and others started pushing the idea of biofortification, sweet potato breeders realized that they didn't have to start from scratch. "We realized that the orange-fleshed sweet potato that is eaten in the U.S. really could provide a lot of vitamin A for the people in Africa," says Maria Isabel Andrade, from the International Potato Center, who is based in Mozambique.

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