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Beyond solving hunger is the target of a diet that delivers brain development and immunity

Working in nutrition, it falls to me to explain, quite often, how unusually nutritious teff is as a staple food. Many of the world’s staple foods, from maize to rice, are filled with starch, which gives our body energy, but does not necessarily provide the protein, fibre, vitamins or minerals we need to be healthy.
By contrast, a single serving of dry teff, with its mildly nutty flavour and incredible versatility, delivers 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of dietary fibre, 25 percent of daily recommended magnesium, 20 percent of daily iron and 10 percent of daily calcium, Vitamin B6 and zinc.
It’s a nutrition cocktail that Ethiopia can be proud of as a starting point for its diet, which might even leave one wondering why the government has highlighted the fortification of foods with vitamins and minerals as an important game changer in the Food Security Plan it unveiled at the United Nations Food System Summit last month.
The answer lies in human potential. For we have come a long way indeed in reducing hunger. The level of level of hunger has been reduced by half and childhood malnutrition and stunting have also reduced dramatically. The government’s moves to enhance agriculture, provide vitamin supplements to children through health extension services, and drive our economy forwards to reduce poverty have all led to falling levels of malnutrition.
Yet it has become clear that there are actually two targets in nutrition to get to full health. The first is enough energy and access to starches to keep our weight up and energy going. The second is about what those of us in nutrition call micronutrients, which are all the elements of fish, dairy, vegetables and meat that see humans develop to their full potential.
However, a report last year from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) looked at the cost of staple foods that were full of starch and the cost of an entire diet with enough vitamins and minerals for health. It found that a fully nutritional diet costs five times as much as an inadequate diet dominated by starch.
But years of data that we have lodged with the FAO shows that the average Ethiopian diet gets 70 percent of its energy from starch. The same records show we are generally low in vital nutrients like Vitamin A and folic acid. This used to be the case, too, with iodine, until the government ruled that iodine must be added to our salt.
In fact, all of these nutrients are key to brain development, as well as in the strength of our immune system in countering disease. Yet, our FAO records show we get about half the folic acid we need, and without it there is a risk of unborn babies developing deformed brains and spines. Over half these babies are stillborn, and many more die at under 5 years of age.
We are also short of vitamin A, which fuels our immune system, which means that small infections can become very serious, causing the unnecessary deaths of several thousand children a year.
Recently, GAIN calculated the cost to the country caused from these deficiencies based on the number of people affected by severe health problems as a result, counting up the additional health care costs and lost productivity, and found in just this very partial analysis that the deficiencies were reducing GDP by more than $520m a year.
Addressing this challenge is something that is requiring multiple health and policy initiatives. For how do we get our population eating more leafy green vegetables, and more fish? But fortification is also a powerful tool in this set, offering a rapid remedy at low cost.
There are initial costs equipping producers to add vitamins to their foods, but, after that, reaching into the diets of most of our population with extra iodine, or vitamin A, or folic acid, just quietly ends most of these nutritional deficiencies, helping allowing every child to meet its full potential.
Thus, with the ambition to end stunting by 2030, as committed by nine ministries in the Seqota Declaration Program, the government has gone beyond the first base of starvation and included plans to give all access to a healthier and richer diet, reducing the seriousness of infections and fatigue, increasing our brain power and productivity and giving us all a better national future ahead.

Ton Haverkort is Country Director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) Ethiopia

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