CSOs in particular are pushing for affordable food fortification across the country, and members of the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have voiced their support for this initiative.
If successful, the major financial losses wreaked upon Pakistan by widespread malnutrition could even be reversed.
The cost of malnutrition
Pakistan loses 2% to 3% of its annual GDP due to its high burden of malnutrition, which has hit Balochistan the hardest.
Major nutrient deficiencies include a lack of iron, vitamins A and D, zinc, folic acid and other minerals, which hampers the body's immune system. This in turn leads to high mortality rates amongst expectant mothers, newborn infants (4.2%), and young children (7.4%).
Children who survive into adulthood tend to be mentally and physically under-developed, resulting in compromised learning abilities at school and lower productivity at work.
Furthermore, unlike its South Asian neighbours — who also suffer from prevalent malnutrition — Pakistan’s malnutrition rates have been stagnating.
While food fortification has been deemed an effective way to combat malnutrition in Pakistan, insufficient financial resources have hindered government and industry efforts to provide fortified food to affected citizens.
Rallying the troops
With this in mind, The Network for Consumer Protection in Pakistan recently partnered with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to organise a day-long training event in Islamabad on fortification awareness and proposal writing for over CSOs.
The main purpose of the event was to impart skills crucial to attracting funds from international donors, with the broader goal of helping to provide financially sustainable food fortification solutions to fight malnutrition in Pakistan.
CEO of The Network for Consumer Protection Nadeem Iqbal said CSOs had an important part to play in influencing industry stakeholders to improve their compliance to food fortification standards, as well as in influencing their communities to insist on high-quality fortified food.
Guest of honour, parliamentary secretary for National Health Services Dr Nausheen Hamid, said in her address to the event's attendees that she was hopeful the training would contribute to ending malnutrition 'at the grassroots level', adding that the government was committed to supporting civil society's efforts to tackle the issues of food fortification and nutrition.
GAIN's country director, Dr Qaiser Munir Pasha, said, "In the past, micronutrient deficiencies were addressed by health service-related interventions and later, (this responsibility) shifted to food science. However, a multi-sectoral approach is essential to end the nutrition crisis."
Already, a number of Pakistani food and supplement manufacturers, along with ingredient firms, are involved in fortification efforts under the SUN (Scaling Up Nutrition) Business Network.
These include confectionery giant CandyLand, HUB-PAK Salt Refinery, therapeutic product firm Herbion Naturals, Genera Pharmaceuticals and National Foods Limited.
A few large MNCs have also committed to providing nutritional solutions to combat malnutrition in Pakistan, most notably BASF and Unilever.
Still, Iqbal told NutraIngredients-Asia that more private sector involvement and donations were required, as well as greater public awareness that would lead to greater demand for fortified food.
He said, "The main focus is on creating awareness about fortified food so that greater demand can be generated.
"Lawmakers and policymakers have been engaged to develop and enforce the requisite regulatory framework for universal availability of fortified food and the provision of enough government allocations to fight malnutrition.
"The wheat, salt and cooking oil industries have also been engaged to ensure that food fortification standards are met, and we have targeted GAIN, SUN, the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), and UK Aid as potential donors.
"But we still have a lack of enough financial resources. Though the government has already developed Pakistan's Multi-sectoral Nutrition Strategy 2018 — 2025, there are not enough resources to implement it. In addition, almost every province has developed food fortification standards that have yet to be enforced."
The breast Pakistan can get?
Also present at the event was senator Dr Mehr Taj Roghani, who said the main reason for malnutrition amongst children in Pakistan was the country’s alarmingly low breastfeeding rates.
"If a child is exclusively fed for (its) first six months on mother’s milk and then for two years (on breastmilk) along with other recommended foods, there will not be any malnutrition in Pakistan.”
The senator, who is also a paediatrician and teaches at a medical college, added: "Even a malnourished mother can feed milk full of micronutrients to a child."
She also addressed the various hindrances Pakistan had been facing in its bid to minimise malnutrition, saying training in proposal-writing would help CSOs to attract more funding, and that both government and civil society must cooperate to bring about change.