To tackle malnutrition, go fish

By Abigail Seiff12 December 2017 Cambodia

A bowl of rice and fish in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo by: WorldFish / CC BY-NC-NDA bowl of rice and fish in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo by: WorldFish / CC BY-NC-ND

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Across the globe, few countries rely on fish as much as Cambodia. The food is a key staple in the local diet, and in the average household, around two-thirds of protein comes from fish. And yet, malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies have remained stubbornly persistent — particularly among children. Solving that contradiction could be the key to improving nutrition across the globe.

“Cambodia is one of our focal countries in the world fish strategy. Why? It is a perfect place to discuss fish in the context of food and nutrition security,” said Yumiko Kura, Cambodia country director and regional program manager at WorldFish.

“Even though the average national fish consumption is very high, fish consumption by children and infants is very low. Increasing the consumption of fish, especially nutrient-rich small fish among these vulnerable population groups, as well as in pregnant and lactating women and small children, especially in their first thousand days of life, can make a real difference in nutritional well being of the poor communities in Cambodia. In turn, [this can] contribute to the national economic development.”

Kura was speaking at the start of a four-day workshop on nutrition-sensitive fish agri-food systems, held in Siem Reap. The workshop drew scores of participants from across the globe, all of whom are working on programs that place fish as a key means of addressing the second Sustainable Development Goal — ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

According to UNICEF, half of deaths of children under the age of five — 3 million — are linked to undernutrition. Nearly a quarter of children worldwide are classed as stunted, meaning their height is low for their age, while almost 8 percent are wasted, or underweight for their height. When divided by wealth, the figures are far more dire — children in the poorest quintile are stunted at twice the rate as their wealthy peers, globally. In South Asia, for instance, a quarter of the children in the wealthiest group are stunted; among the poorest, 52 percent are. 

Fish — particularly the type of small, oily species that are eaten whole — is a ready source for many of the micronutrients most lacking among those in developing countries. In the next five years, CGIAR’s Research Program on Fish Agri-food Systems, or FISH, is aiming to massively expand fish production and consumption across Africa and Asia. This includes expanding fisheries and household and commercial aquaculture, as well as improving market connections and productivity. 

Increasingly, the International Fund for Agriculture and Development has made fish-related projects a cornerstone of its efforts to combat poverty.

“Aquaculture is relatively new in IFAD’s portfolio and it is one of the fastest growing opportunities in attracting interest, especially in Africa and Asia,” said Joyce Njoro, a lead technical specialist in nutrition at IFAD. “While in plant science, much effort placed increasing single nutrients in plants, we already have fish species with nutrients we need in high amounts and in high availability and this should really be the focus of investment.”

The stakes are high, said Aymeric Roussel, an attaché focused on natural resources management with the European Union’s delegation in Cambodia.

“Undernutrition contributes to 50 percent of illness suffered by children under five. Long-term undernutrition in the form of stunting or frequent wasting or micronutrient deficiencies cause devastating and irreversible damage in cognitive development. Undernutrition is not only a public health issue, it is also a tremendous economic cost. It is estimated at 10 percent of the lifetime earning of one person and 2 to 8 percent of one nation’s GDP,” he said. “It is now vital to invest in nutrition sensitive activities if the necessary scale of stunting reduction is to be achieved.