Pakistan fortification programme targets micronutrient deficiencies in women and children
Writing for The Express Tribune, Joanna Reid, head of the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) in Pakistan, said: "Combating malnutrition is at the heart of the UK's work in Pakistan.
"Working with the government and provinces of Pakistan, UK Aid is investing more than Rs 6 billion over the next five years to improve the nutritional status of people in Pakistan, particularly women of child-bearing age and young children, through food fortification."
Launched in September 2016, the DFID-funded Food Fortification programme plans to cut iron-deficiency anaemia by a third and vitamin A deficiency by a quarter in women and children by fortifying flour, ghee and edible oils.
It cooperates with the Pakistani government on technical standards, regulations, and lab testing infrastructure, subsidising mills in terms of premix costs as an incentive for millers to produce fortified flour.
Working with over 1,000 wheat flour mills and 100 edible oil mills, it also trains millers and gives them technical support, while educating the general public on the health benefits of fortified foods.
The programme's main goal in Pakistan is to have half the population consuming fortified wheat flour and two-thirds using fortified ghee and edible oils within five years.
Food fortification is among the most cost-effective ways to combat chronic micronutrient deficiencies.
As such, the programme aims to provide better access to fortified staple foods, such as wheat flour fortified with folic acid and iron, as well as ghee and edible oils fortified with vitamins A and D.
For Pakistan, this would mean more nutritious diets without significant changes to eating habits.
Reid wrote: "This week, we launched our food fortification initiative in Punjab. Working alongside the province and local producers, we have started fitting micro-feeder equipment in flour mills — the machines that the flour producers will use to add vitamins and nutrients."
She added that 'quality-assurance equipment' was being provided to mills and public laboratories to test fortification standards in Pakistan.
However, she also said the equipment was just one part of the efforts to improve overall nutrition in the country.
She stressed the need for legislation requiring the fortification of wheat flour in more provinces, and for current legislation to be better enforced.
"Food manufacturers need support to increase technical capacity, and consumers need to understand the benefit of choosing fortified food for their families.
"The Food Fortification Programme will not be able to do this on its own. We are therefore working with different levels of government, as well as producers and manufacturers."
A dire situation
Pakistan is the world's third most chronically malnourished country, and 6% of the global population's chronically malnourished children reside there.
A 2011 UN survey reported that among children below the age of five in Pakistan, 32% were underweight, 44% stunted, 54% vitamin A-deficient, and 62% anaemic. Among expectant mothers in the country, 51% were anaemic and 69% vitamin D-deficient.
Insufficient vitamin A and D cause large numbers of newborns and young children to die from minor ailments. In fact, Unicef estimates that more than 200,000 children in Pakistan die every year from malnutrition even before they turn five.
The effects of chronic malnutrition in the first two years of life are irreversible, leading to impaired cognitive development. This hinders children's learning ability, causing them to start schooling later and compromising their productivity in adulthood. According to the UN, Pakistan loses 2% to 3% of its annual GDP to malnutrition.
Reid said, "We are excited about what we will be able to achieve together. In the next three years, the Food Fortification Programme aims to ensure that around half of the population of Pakistan is consuming fortified wheat flour and over two-thirds are using fortified edible oil and ghee.
"This will mean Pakistan has a population that is healthier, more productive and better able to meet its enormous potential."