PHNOM PENH - Although Cambodia grows enough rice to meet the needs of its people, millions do not get enough micronutrients in their diets – a deficiency with long-term debilitating consequences. Next week a $3 million Canadian-funded project will look to replicate and scale up the successes of a pilot program that was tried in one rural province.
Malnutrition remains a serious problem in Cambodia: figures released this year by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization show that one in three children under five suffers from stunted growth brought about by a poor diet.
Although Cambodia is considered “food secure,” there are still many whose diet has problems," said Professor Tim Green, a nutrition expert from Canada’s University of British Columbia. “So what that really means is that they have adequate amounts of white rice. There are enough calories or kilojoules for the population, but they’re missing a lot of key essential micronutrients.”
That lack of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, affects both physical and mental development, and can cause lifelong problems.
The deficiency is known as “hidden hunger” and is a particular problem for children and women. The lack of Vitamin B1, for instance, which Green’s research found is common, can result in infants dying in less than a day from the onset of symptoms. Yet it’s easily remedied by, for example, adding Vitamin B1 to fish sauce, something Green’s team did.
Diversifying food intake
When experts assess food, one aspect examined is how diverse people’s diets are Green explained. Typically the greater the variety of meat, rice and vegetables that people eat, the better. But that doesn’t hold true in impoverished Cambodia, even though diets are reasonably diverse.
“Because what we find is that people eat tiny little amounts of food. So they may report eating pork every day, but it may only be five to 10 grams. So we’ve gone in and done more comprehensive diet assessments and we do see that the intake of these foods, although of a wide variety, the quantity is actually quite low,” he said.
Green’s team assessed the Canadian-funded pilot project in southeastern Prey Veng province. It targeted 900 poor households in a bid to improve their nutrition by diversifying their food intake.
The “Fish on Farms” project saw 300 households get help to establish vegetable gardens, while a further 300 also received ponds in which to raise fish. The remaining 300 were the control group and got nothing.
After three years the households with both fishponds and vegetable gardens were significantly better off than the villagers who only had vegetable gardens. Both were better off than the control group.
“We saw increases in income, and that income was controlled by women and it was used mainly to buy other foods and education. We saw some improvements in other nutritional parameters,” said Green.
The successes of the pilot are being incorporated into a larger-scale program, due to get underway next week that will target 4,500 impoverished households in four provinces.
Zaman Talukder, a technical advisor on nutrition for Helen Keller International, a non-profit that is involved in both projects, said the pilot showed what can be achieved in a range of areas.
“This project has impact on increasing the availability of different types of quality food, which are rich in micronutrients, and that increase the consumption by the most vulnerable, like children and women; it gives additional income; it [is] also one of the best interventions to empower women who are the decision-makers for household consumption and family health,” Talukder explained.
The new program is different in several ways. For a start, and in an effort to make it sustainable, it will require households to contribute some of the costs to whatever element they choose – whether a fishpond, a vegetable garden or poultry rearing.
Also, families will get advice on sanitation, which remains a huge problem in rural areas – as well as education on nutrition, access to microcredit, and help to market any surplus they grow.
Ultimately, the idea is that the evidence-based results from these two projects will be incorporated into Cambodia’s policy framework for malnutrition – because although the country has come a long way in combating hunger, tackling its “hidden hunger” scourge needs much more work.