Bangladesh is one of the top ten fish producing countries in the world. Our country has achieved tremendous success in freshwater aquaculture with an increased rate of fish production over the last decade.
It can be hoped that with the increase in Hilsa production and higher marine fisheries harvest, we will have more varieties of fish for both domestic consumption and export earnings.
Fish, both capture and culture, collectively constitute a primary pillar for our national food and nutrition security. Concerns arise however when fish production volume is graphed against population malnourishment, which reveal that even after increased fish production and agriculture growth, Bangladesh is yet to deliver a population that is fully nourished and healthy.
It is unfortunate that despite the abundant supply of fish and food in the markets, our people are suffering from "silent hunger". Sadly, 20 million women and young children are suffering from malnutrition.
The food they consume does not contain all the required nutrients. I feel our efforts in fish production can remove the "silent hunger" by fish species selection, flexible and improved supply chain, awareness on nutrition through education, and guaranteed portion sizes for a targeted vulnerable population.
With 4.3 million metric tonnes of production volume, we have successfully surpassed the target of 60g per capita consumption to reach 63g per capita availability. We have been able to produce enough fish so that everybody can fulfill their nutritional requirement.
Around 56 percent of the production comes from aquaculture. A majority of these farms are located in the rural setting, and a good portion of it comes from household ponds. Despite this situation, the consumption of fish both in rural and urban poor households is insufficient.
Although 63g fish per capita is available for the entire population, evidence suggests that the average daily consumption of fish in rural and urban poor households is much lesser than the national average due to low income and lack of purchasing ability.
The poor consumption of fish has impacts on the nutritional status of the population, especially women and children. Therefore, efforts should be taken to improve the accessibility, affordability, storage, quality and utility of the fish we produce. The sooner we make the effort the faster we can remove the "silent hunger" from our vast population to build a healthier nation.
Food security and nutrition has risen to the top of the global priority agenda and stands as Sustainable Development Goal-SDG 2: "to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition".
Food security is the availability and affordability of food for everyone in a country. There is a greater prevalence of underweight, moderate, and severe stunting among the children and higher level of malnutrition among the women in Bangladesh.
With various efforts of the government for a decade, the prevalence of severe underweight among children has dropped down from 31.9 percent in 2012 to 22.6 percent in 2019. The level of moderate to severe stunting has gone down from 42 percent in 2012 to 28 percent in the same period.
Half of the women suffered from malnutrition and the present level of suffering is still 39 percent. This high level of malnutrition occurs in pregnant and lactating women, and children have limited access and priority to food containing essential micro-nutrients. Fish consumption can change this scenario in the country.
Increased consumption of a specific fish can deliver micro-nutrients, essential minerals, protein and boost immunity to all classes and age groups. Some inland fish like mola, dhela, darkina, chela, and all pelagic marine fishes are rich in micro-nutrients and other essential elements to support normal growth of children, development of brain and cognition, and may reduce anaemia in women.
Small fish are rich in essential fatty acids and micro-nutrients like Ca, Iron, Zinc, Iodine, Vitamin A and Vitamin B12. We need to emphasise on diversification in aquaculture species to include nutrient-rich indigenous small fish for enriching diet content.
Fish is a vital source of nutrient-dense high-quality protein, low chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and micro-nutrients, and thus fish consumption can combat malnutrition and help boost community health.
Despite tremendous success in aquaculture of carps, pangas and tilapia production, the rural and urban people are deprived of their rich heritage of nutrient-rich small fish. These fish were once abundant in the inland open water for free harvesting.
Through breeding success at the BFRI and private hatcheries, fish seeds of many small local fishes are now available. We should now promote innovative nutrient-sensitive aquaculture, that is, small fish with carps, small fish with tilapia in small scale ponds and rice fields.
Small fish can be consumed for the family, and large fish sold for household income. DOF/BFRI, BAU/universities and INGOs/NGOs may develop science-based nutrition-sensitive aquaculture technologies, which will be nutritionally important, economically beneficial, socially acceptable, and environmentally benign.
Good facilities such as cold storage, fish drying, salting, ice and transportation for culture fish, marine fish and hilsa distribution throughout the country are required. This will result in wastage reduction, swift availability, even market distribution and ultimately benefiting from increased fish production growth.
We should improve local fish markets and set up market hubs in major fish producing and landing sites. Trishal, Mymensingh wholesale fish market, maybe an example of such fish market hubs. We can set up 30 - 40 such hubs throughout the country in important fish producing sites.
Fish markets should have improved storage facility, clean groundwater, electricity and improved cold chain. BFDC may play a leading role in this regard. If the effective policy in favour of improved market access is created, and the current level of production is maintained, fish can reach the plates of the vulnerable people.
From a fish consumption perspective, providing fish-rich meals at school can support increased attention in students, provide physical fitness & combat nutrient deficiency. Fish can be included in school feeding programs.
Targeting these under-aged children and women and ensuring they receive optimal fish diet, containing small fish species which are eaten whole with bones can alleviate silent hunger. Scientists believe that child nutrition under 5 years is important for growth and brain development.
Foetus gets nutrition from their mothers' womb and 1000 days are counted as essential from the day of conception. Special care must be given to pregnant women with extra nutrition as fish, eggs, and milk, not only support mothers' health but also build a foundation for the children's health.
Hospitals may provide fish in the regular patient diet. This has benefits of increased consumption of nutrient-rich easily palatable fish.
Finally, the idea of "Mache Bhate Banagali" – Fish and Rice makes a Bengali, is no longer a proverb that is true within folklore only. More than any time in our history, we have the fish production to back our appetite.
However, more work is required to promote fish as an active part of our diet that provides all essential nutrients, minerals, and protein that we need. Selecting the right species of mineral and nutrient-rich fish for production, creating an efficient fish distribution supply chain, fish promoted as staple where possible, and proper nutrition education will finally help our country break the "Malnourishment Barrier" and remove silent hunger.
Prof Dr Md Abdul Wahab is a former Professor of Fisheries, Bangladesh Agricultural University, currently working with WorldFish Bangladesh as Team Leader of USAID funded ECOFISH II project. He can be reached through A.Wahab@cgiar.org.