|By CHIOMA OBINNA|
Nigerian scientists at the National Roots Crops Research Institute, NCRI, in collaboration with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA, have developed and released the first ever African set of pro-vitamin A-enriched yellow cassava as part of strategies to curb the prevalence of malnutrition in the country.
The three varieties which include UMUCASS 36, UMUCASS 37 and 38 will provide more vitamin A in the diets of more than 70 million Nigerians who eat the root crop every day.
Launching the varieties at the NCRI, Umudike, Abia State weekend, the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, in his paper entitled; "Pro Vitamin A Cassava: A Revolution for Nutrition and Health in Nigeria" explained that the successes achieved in Nigeria with the control of the cassava mealy bug and cassava mosaic virus came from improved application of science, especially plant genetics and integrated pest management practices.
Describing it as a giant stride in the pursuit of better nutrition for vulnerable Nigerian groups, Adesina noted the success was part of the drive to transform agriculture through the Federal government Agricultural Transformation Action Plan, ATA, to ensure additional 20 million metric tonnes of food to the domestic supply and to focus on agriculture as a business.
"Cassava is one of the major crops under this Transformation Agenda. Our focus is to create new markets for cassava: these include high quality cassava flour, to be used in replacing some of the wheat flour being imported to produce bread, high fructose cassava syrup to replace the 200,000 metric tonnes of sugar currently being used in the juice manufacturing industry, dried cassava chips, and the production of ethanol. Our goal is to add an additional 17 million metric tonnes of cassava to our domestic food supply.
Maintaining that producing more food is not enough, he stressed the need to ensure that there are enhanced food nutrition and health.
His words: "UNICEF reports show that 43 per cent of under-five children in Nigeria are stunted. This is high when compared to 39 per cent for all developing countries; 26 per cent in Ghana; 25 per cent in Benin; 29 per cent in Botswana, Burkina Faso and Cameroon; and 33 per cent in Kenya.
Nigeria's ranks 158th out of 182 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), with life expectancy of 48 years; risk of maternal death of 1 in 18; and under_five mortality rate of 186 per 1,000 live births. Nigeria's stunting prevalence puts it as the 32nd highest out of 136 countries.
"Nigeria has the third highest absolute number of children, who are stunted, with 41 per cent of children under the age of five stunted, 23 per cent underweight, and 14 per cent wasted. Moreover, 14 per cent of infants are born with a low birth weight.
Adesina stressed the need to accelerate efforts and policy measures on improving health and nutrition of vulnerable groups, especially women, infants and children.
"Scaling up core micronutrients interventions would cost less than US$188 million per year. This can be achieved through nutritional supplementation, diversity of diets and bio-fortification. Although the overall prevalence of stunting and underweight has been decreasing over the past two decades, progress in
Nigeria may not be sufficient to meet MDG's goal of halving 1990 rates of child underweight by 2015.”
He noted that annually, Nigeria loses over US$1.5 billion in GDP to vitamin and mineral deficiencies as many staple foods are low in essential micronutrients, hence the need for home fortification.
He said bio-fortification provides one of the best ways to achieve improvements in nutrition and explained that out of over 20 varieties earlier identified, more intense selection and conventional breeding work have brought at least three varieties that compare favourably in pro Vitamin A.
"These Pro Vitamin A or beta carotene varieties of cassava would go a long way in correcting the deficiency of this nutrient in diets, particularly those of the poor and the vulnerable.