New food crop varieties aim to end malnutrition, stunting

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HYDERABAD: Ramzan Mallah, a farmer of village Sultan Mallah in Tando Muhammad Khan district, was one of the first to cultivate bio-fortified wheat on one acre land.

In the remaining three of the four acres that he owns, he has cultivated seasonal vegetables on two acres, sparing one for kidney beans.

He was happy to describe the nutritional value in the new variety of wheat and kidney bean crops. He makes compost himself for the crops to avoid using chemical input.

Sharing his experiences, Ramzan said that last year he got 48 maunds per acre of the new variety of bio-fortified wheat. He said that his crops were rich in both zinc and iron and that the kidney beans were also a good source of protein and vitamins.

Both food crops are new in the area, and inspire other farmers to also opt for nutritious food varieties to overcome malnutrition and stunting among minor children.

Village Sultan Mallah has 54 households, mostly farmer families dependent on agriculture and livestock rearing. The farmers work with the component of European Union-funded Programme for Improved Nutrition in Sindh (PINS) to introduce new varieties of food crops.

The residents share haunting stories about rain flood disasters that always hit them badly and cause crop losses. Ramzan claims to help his community whenever they need in times of difficulty.

He also showed off the modest fish pond he developed. He allows the community to take fish free of cost, to help them eat a balanced diet. He learnt this from the awareness sessions. To maintain it, he brings fish seeds from fish hatcheries.

“I learnt generosity from the elders in my community, who want the village to thrive and children to inherit the community spirit to take it forward,” he said. “Since the floods in 2011, I have been planting fruit trees to grow guava, mango and jamun for the children in the village. They can pick whatever fruit they want and it makes me happy to see them eat it.”

He has also given a small piece of land to two farmers, Faqeero Thakur and his niece, Jamuna who have been trained under PINS as agriculture entrepreneurs to cultivate organic vegetables for self- consumption as well as for the market. Both of them also teach the neighbouring community to grow their own vegetables in their kitchen gardens.

Faqeero is an experienced farmer and is aware of the ups and downs that come with the changing weather, which can have a significant impact on the vegetable crops. Over time, he has become an advocate for using organic fertilisers. He is aware of the consequences of using chemical ones, and advises other farmers to use the ones he does to produce safe food.

Faqeero and Jamuna, belonging to the neighbouring Village Ghulam Nabi Shah, have also cultivated vegetables on the bank of watercourse flowing near their home, which serves as a demonstration to their community to encourage them to grow and consume organic vegetables at their homes.

These vegetable gardens are also a cost-effective way for many to produce their own vegetables, and save a trip to the market.

Faqeero and Jamuna hope kitchen gardens will help their community overcome this poverty, malnourishment and stunting.

Jeewan Bai, who regularly attends sessions that Jamuna holds at the farmer field school, has cultivated cauliflower, onion, garlic, tomato, coriander, and spinach on some land along the bank of the watercourse flowing behind her house.

“Growing these vegetables depends on availability of water. Sometimes we face problems in the case of prolonged water scarcity in the irrigation channels. If that happens, we use water from the hand pumps.”

Jeewan Bai also laments that as poor landless farmers, everything was dictated by their landlord’s choice, which could be wheat, cotton and rice. So learning about growing vegetables in small spaces, including tires and on walls from the farmer field school, has been helpful.

The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2017-18 shows that 38 percent of children under five were stunted. In Sindh alone a whopping 50 percent children are stunted.

To address this, the Sindh government is leading the multi-sectoral Sindh Accelerated Action Plan for Reduction of Stunting and Malnutrition (AAP), which PINS is supporting.

The AAP is made of eight sectors, including agriculture, fisheries and livestock with strategic focus to strengthen collaboration between all to reduce malnutrition and stunting.

Jameel Ghumro, an Agriculture Officer working with PINS has helped set up 150 farmer field schools (FFS) across Tando Muhammad Khan, which host farmers and other community members to discuss crops, grow seasonal vegetables organically, and teach other agriculture practices that account for the climate in the area.

Through FFS and other community-driven interventions like fish ponds, PINS aims to reduce malnutrition among women and children in the area, working with community institutions to overcome the challenges together towards a healthier future.

Jameel said that women were taking part enthusiastically in growing their own kitchen gardens, while making small and important changes to their own and families’ diets which makes him hopeful.

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