Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Fighting malnutrition with Moringa


It is such a shame that the level of malnutrition in India, the home of Moringa tree, is nearly twice of what prevails in Sub-Saharan Africa. The World Bank, in a report last year, slamming the Government of India on its tag of “one of the most malnourished nations in the world” said that robust economic growth and food security by themselves would not lower the incidence of malnutrition, especially among women and children. Stating that malnourishment rates are high, 54 % among scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and 50% among rural children, the report observed a mismatch between “intentions and implementation” in the Integrated Child Development programme. The nutrition-related sectoral plans of other ministries were also found to have remained mostly unimplemented. Even the Mid-day Meal Programme, while ensuring better attendance in schools, has failed to be of value in reducing malnutrition.

This is not all. Noting that 2000 to 3000 children die of malnutrition every day, even the UK-based Institute of Development Studies described India as an “economic powerhouse but a nutritional weakling”. With 46% children in the country still malnourished, the Institute felt India would not be able to meet the UN Millennium Goals of halving the number of hungry citizens by 2015. Veena S Rao, a former secretary to the Government of India, in her book “Malnutrition, an emergency: what it costs the nation” estimated that malnutrition has led to a loss of 4% in GDP. Stressing that malnutrition was a huge human resource calamity, she called for making “high-energy low-cost food” available to the poor.

This is precisely where Moringa, the “Miracle Tree”, our humble drumstick tree (botanical name: Moringa oleifera), has a role. For many, it is inconceivable that this non-descript tree could ever be an effective foil against the prevailing widespread malnutrition in the country.

Malnutrition is caused by deficiencies of micro-nutrients like, inter alia, iron deficiency anemia (IDA), vitamin A deficiency (VAD),, iodine deficiency disorders (IDD). About 70 per cent of pre-school children suffer from IDA. Further, low birth-weight (LBW) is one of the key causes of under-nutrition in India, where about 30 per cent of the children are born with LBW largely due to poor maternal nutrition. Almost a third of the women have a body mass index below normal and the prevalence of anemia among pregnant women is around 60%. Besides, want of proper sanitation and hygiene, coupled with lack of safe drinking water and consequential gastro-intestinal disorders, are basic causes of under-nutrition and chronic ill-health. The United Nations has defined malnutrition as a state in which an individual can no longer maintain natural bodily capacities such as growth, pregnancy, lactation, learning abilities, physical work and resisting and recovering from diseases.

The miraculous Moringa Tree could take care of most of the nutritional deficiencies if only it is put to proper use. Increasingly considered as the world’s most valuable natural resource, the main constituents of the tree are several nutritive ingredients. Its leaves, pods and flowers are considered good sources of vitamins A, B, B2, B3, B6 and C, folic acid, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, calcium, iron, and amino acids. More importantly, its leaves are highly nutritious, being a significant source of beta-carotene, vitamin C, protein, iron and potassium. In fact, Australians claim that the Moringa tree provides 7 times the Vitamin C in oranges, 4 times the calcium in milk, 4 times the Vitamin A in carrots, 2 times the protein in milk, and 3 times the potassium in bananas.

A versatile plant with a multitude of natural attributes, Moringa is great food for humans and animals alike. Its leaves, flowers and fruits, all are edible. Its leaves, dried and powdered, when added to the diet of undernourished children enhance their appetite and increase their weight. Among the nursing mothers it markedly increases lactation providing greater nutrition for the suckling infants. It also makes great fodder for cattle. Experiments have revealed that the weight of livestock increased upto 32 per cent through Moringa feed, increasing their milk by 43%. As in the case of humans the dried leaves appear to be much more effective.

What is, perhaps as important is the capability of the Moringa seeds to purify water and thus take care of many of the ailments, including the debilitating diarrhea, of the rural folk that arise from unsafe drinking water. The pulp of the seeds makes an effective coagulant, which can be used to clean turbid waters. In an hour or so of immersion of seeds, the contaminants are pulled to the bottom of the water. Researchers have shown that the seeds, in the process, also neutralise over 90% of bacteria and viruses present in the water, rendering it safer for, both humans and cattle. This it can do even after extraction of its oil, called ben oil, which is of use in several industries.

With its incredible diverse utility as a medicinal, industrial and ecological plant, planting the tree in and around Indian villages, therefore, makes perfect economic sense. Native of India and widely distributed in the country in virtually in its every region, it can grow fast and in any condition. It is drought resistant and has remarkable survival instincts. It is kind of a “never say die” plant, so much so that it is difficult to kill it. It can, with facility, green the semi-arid regions of the country rendering several benefits to the local communities.

Africa is using the tree in a big way to fight hunger and malnutrition. The value of the Moringa tree has been documented and has been found to be sustainable solution to malnutrition in the continent. What is more, a new remarkable attribute has since been discovered and that is its capacity to build up the immune systems. Hard hit by HIV/AIDS, a huge number of the drought resistant trees are being planted in most of the affected countries of Africa.

Internationally some non-governmental organizations like Trees for Life, Church World Service, and Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization — have actively advocated Moringa as “natural nutrition for the tropics”. The beneficiaries have been some of the Central and South American, African and Asian countries. No such governmental or non-governmental initiative has so far taken off in this country though it happens to be the world’s largest producer of Moringa. It seems it is yet to be appreciated that Moringa could well be the provider of (Veena Rao’s) “high-energy, low-cost food” for the Indian anemic and malnourished.

For emancipation of the deprived and the disadvantaged from the curse of chronic ill-health and malnutrition a well thought-out campaign to harvest the varied benefits of Moringa through, inter alia, gram panchayats and anganwadis is, therefore, direly needed