‘Bangladesh has made significant progress in tackling undernutrition’

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Dr Matthew Morell serves as the Director General and CEO of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), an international research and training organization established in 1960 with HQ in the Philippines and offices in 17 countries with 1,200 staff worldwide. Prior to current appointment as Director General in December 2015, he provided strategic leadership to IRRI’s research and outreach programmes across various dimensions of rice science and capacity development as Deputy Director General (Research). His previous scientific leadership roles include over 17 years of experience at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) driving research programmes on future grains and plant oil production. He has extensive experience in the areas of intellectual property and regulatory compliance.

Dr Morell holds a PhD in agricultural chemistry from the University of Sydney, conducted postdoctoral studies at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Davis, and served as research fellow at the Australian National University.

In a recent visit to Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) he discussed various research related issues to BRRI Director General Dr Md Shahjahan Kabir along with the senior scientists and officials. He exchanged ideas with the scientists and policy makers on modern rice production technologies as well as ongoing collaboration and promotional activities. In a separate brain storming session at the IRRI-BRRI friendship office Dr Morell talked to M A Kashem, Technical Editor and Head, Publications and Public Relations Division of the institute about Golden Rice and Nutrition related issues. Excerpt from the interview:

M A Kashem: Do you think Golden Rice can play a vital role in ensuring nutrition security of Bangladesh?

Dr Matthew Morell: Pro-vitamin A Bio-fortified Rice Event GR2E (Golden Rice) is genetically modified rice variety has higher levels of pro-vitamin A.  GR2E rice will be grown commercially in major rice-producing regions, primarily in Asia. Scientists with expertise in molecular biology, microbiology, toxicology, chemistry and nutrition conducted a thorough analysis of the data and the protocols and ensured that GR2E rice is safe for consumption, that the increased pro-vitamin A levels posed no risk to consumers, and that it still has all its nutritional value.

M A Kashem: GMO critics say Golden Rice is not a ‘silver bullet’ in fight against vitamin A deficiency. How do you respond?

Dr Morell: Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) results from a lack of vitamin A in the diet. VAD can also be caused by infections that reduce appetite or the body’s ability to absorb vitamin A. Persistent VAD is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness and increases the risk of death from common childhood infections. VAD remains a serious and pervasive public health problem affecting 190 million preschool children and 19 million pregnant women globally.

In addition to this, research prevails that, at present, rice contributes 70% of the daily caloric intake of the Bangladesh population, while the national consumption of vitamin A is estimated at half the recommended daily allowance. About 20% of children and 5% of pregnant women of Bangladesh are suffering from Vitamin A deficiency and are at risk of blindness. Advances such as beta-carotene fortified GR2E Golden Rice are an important part of an overall strategy to reduce Vitamin A deficiency especially in Bangladesh.

M A Kashem: What are the differences between Bangladesh and the developed countries in terms of food security and nutrition?

Dr Morell: Bangladesh has made significant progress tackling undernutrition over the last two decades. Progress has also been made increasing enrolment at primary schools, lowering the infant mortality rate and maternal mortality ratio, improving immunization coverage and reducing the incidence of communicable diseases. Despite these significant achievements, levels of stunting and underweight are still high than the WHO/CDC threshold level for emergency and is considered a severe public health problem. Although the prevalence of underweight has also been on a steady downward trend since 1990 and Bangladesh has the momentum to achieve the fifth World Health Assembly global target of a 40% reduction in child stunting by 2025. In Bangladesh, malnutrition is caused by a combination of factors including faulty food consumption, food utilization owing to poor sanitation, illness and inadequate health care.

Moreover, I heard that, the Bangladesh Government endorsed the National Plan of Action for Nutrition as followed from World Declaration for National Plan of action for Nutrition at the ICN and also developed a National Food and Nutrition Policy. The NPAN was developed on the analysis of nutrition situation and followed a participatory process involving major actors in Nutrition at that time including Ministry of Health and Family Welfare with the Bangladesh National Nutrition Council (BNNC) as the focal point. Core sectors included Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Livestock, and other relevant ministries covering all together 19 ministries. So it’s very positive move towards eliminating nutritional deficiencies.

According to FAO, food security “is a situation when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. (www.fao.org).” Hence, given the current food and nutrition situation worldwide, following areas are required to scale up and accelerate action to ensure food security and nutrition within the food and agriculture sector and across sectors to improve nutrition:

*    Mainstream unified nutrition messages and interventions with agriculture, food, education and all other programmes
*    Integrate nutrition and food safety in curricula (school, graduation, post-graduation, medical and nursing etc)
*    Promote food safety and hygiene
*    Build capacity for smooth implementation and monitoring of nutrition services
*    Strengthen biodiversity for healthy diets and nutrition, including indigenous foods and species etc.

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