The recent United Nations report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition brings attention, once again, to undernourishment and malnutrition in Bangladesh. The report says one in every six persons in Bangladesh is undernourished and the number of such people has increased to 24.2 million in 2018 from 23.85 million in 2006.
The extent and severity of undernourishment should be much lower in a country where the main source of protein and micronutrients is fish and fish is abundant. With a vast network of rivers and wetlands, Bangladesh produces a huge amount of fish from inland water bodies. Unfortunately, the type of fish largely available for consumption is from fish farms.
In the last decade, it has been reported that the country is rapidly losing its indigenous fish species, but little has been done to change government-prescribed aquaculture practices including large scale monoculture in floodplains and wetlands. Professionals and organisations representing the aquaculture sector prefer to focus only on climate change and irresponsible practices in crop-farming for this decline in fish species.
To add to that, the encroachment on rivers for fish-farming continues, in many cases incentivised through many extension projects funded by public money.
Lost dietary diversity
The accompanying loss of fish biodiversity is limiting Bangladesh’s ability to overcome malnutrition among lower-income and poor populations. In a 2017 study led by public health nutritionist Jessica R Bogard, the authors challenged the conventional narrative that increases in farmed-fish supply have led to improvements in diet and nutrition in Bangladesh.
Using nationally representative household expenditure surveys, the team of authors conducted an analysis of fish consumption and nutrient intakes from fish in Bangladesh and found that although fish consumption increased by 30% from 1991 to 2010, people are getting fewer nutrients from eating fish. In the face of the decline of naturally harvested native fishes, people are eating more farmed fish. The limited varieties of farmed fish are unable to provide some critical nutrients. “There were significant decreases in iron and calcium intakes from fish and no significant change in intakes of zinc, vitamin A and vitamin B12 from fish, reflecting lower overall nutritional quality of fish available for consumption over time,” the study said.
Shah Mohammad Fahim, a public health professional currently working for the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, was born and raised in a rural district where he saw a vast swath of floodplains and wetlands being converted to aquaculture ponds during his teens. The diverse fish diets of the families in the region were replaced by a few carp species and Tilapia.
“A good and steady diet of safe and nutrient-rich fish can provide the protein required for optimum growth of children,” he said. “We have recently observed that micronutrient adequacy in diets is very poor among children less than two years of age in Bangladesh. The latest National Micronutrient Survey showed that the prevalence of anaemia was 33.1% among five-year-olds.” Fahim said that the most pressing issues here are micronutrient deficiencies among all demographics and stunting of children.
According to the last Demographic and Health Survey, conducted in 2014, the prevalence of stunting is 36% among five-year-olds. Although this is a steep decline from 1996-’97 when it was 60%, this is still worrisome. According to Fahim, the major factors behind stunting of children include “poor maternal health during pregnancy, inadequate dietary diversity of mother and children and altered gut health and functions. Moreover, in Bangladesh fish that we consume are fed with antibiotics, which are responsible for the alteration of our gut environment.”
A former Country Director of WorldFish in Bangladesh, Malcom Dickson, suggested that the message about this nutrition crisis should be that Bangladesh needs to “increase consumption of both farmed and wild fish. All fish, both farmed and wild fish have unique qualities – particularly, minerals, vitamins and fatty acids – that nutritionally challenged people can benefit from.” He added, “I agree that Bangladesh has focused more on increasing aquaculture production than the improved nutrition that will result from consumption of fish.”
Finding fish that helps
Is small-scale organic fish-farming the solution? Delowar Jahan, who runs one of the very few outlets in Dhaka – a city of ten million – that supplies organic fish, suggested, “It can start with small-scale organic farming as we do, but of course what we need is a total overhaul of academic agricultural education and state-led aquaculture extension in Bangladesh.”
“We need to produce fish in a way that does not harm the aquatic biodiversity and provide what the people need – healthy diets of protein, rich with micro-nutrients,” he said. “Most importantly, the best solution is what nature offers – restoring and conserving the country’s vast network of rivers and bringing back the capture fisheries.”
Besides organic fish-farming, in recent years many innovative fish-farming practices are emerging in Bangladesh to replace unhealthy and intensive monoculture. Pond poly-culture and other fish-farming practices integrated with floating gardens are two of them that saw small-scale successes.
In pond poly-culture, several large fish species are farmed together with small native fish in homestead ponds. Though it is not a totally natural pond filled with very diverse fish species with only organic processes, scientists claim that several different species increase nutritional quality.
Haseeb Mohammed Irfanullah, a biologist turned development practitioner, has followed floating garden developments since the last decade. This technique allows the cultivation of fruits and vegetables in floating raft-like structures. Now some efforts are underway to use floating gardening with other aquaculture techniques.
In 2005, Practical Action, a global non-profit, piloted and developed a business model forfloating gardens. Later already established cage-culture and agriculture in above-water pots have been combined to solve nutrition-related problems in increasingly saline conditions in the south-western coast near Sundarbans. A few years ago a group of organisations and a university piloted another version of this, called the Integrated Floating Cage Aqua-geoponics System in the central part of the coast, said Irfanullah. In the North Western region, another NGO combined floating agriculture with fish and duck farming as an innovation. “Based on the lessons learned, these innovations could be scaled up to get multiple benefits out of wetlands without over-exploiting their natural resources,” he added.
Kazi Ahsan Habib of Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University stressed, “Even if fish-farming in Bangladesh becomes nutrition-sensitive, that would not be a replacement for wild fisheries. Only wild fisheries can offer greater diversity and nutrients, and efficiently conserve the aquatic ecosystem.”
“Prioritisation of sustainable management of wild-catch over aquaculture” is not yet visible in Bangladesh, said Irfanullah. He mentioned that the Department of Fisheries recently launched a $240 million project funded by the World Bank. “I am very interested to see how the new Sustainable Coastal and Marine Fisheries Project shapes Bangladesh’s fisheries management system,” he said.
Habib is hopeful that things will change for open water capture fisheries. “There are a number of new policy decisions and actions since the last decade by the government, which is helping to restore our wild-caught fishery,” he said. “Due to the relentless research efforts by the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute and scientists in academia, we now have a better understanding of how to manage capture fisheries. With their coordinated efforts, the Department of Fisheries, and other public agencies, Bangladesh is successfully restoring the Hilsa.”
“I think with time, we will be able to replicate the success of Hilsa fishery in mixed-species freshwater fisheries. Bangladesh is a coastal country with hundreds of rivers and vast floodplains, inland and coastal wetlands, so with proper management, we should be able to have more than half of our fisheries production from capture [rather than farms],” he added.
Mohammad Arju is an independent journalist based in Bangladesh.
This article first appeared on The Third Pole.