A meal in Bangladesh

Fighting malnutrition and food insecurity in Bangladesh with micronutrient-rich small fish

By Mostafa Hossain

Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in areas related to health, nutrition, water, sanitation, and hygiene. One area of positive change is a huge drop in malnutrition as measured by stunting levels, which fell from 42% in 2013 to 28% in 2019. There is a long way to go, and much more needs to be done quickly if the country is to achieve ambitious United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. For instance, 22.6% of Bangladesh’s population are underweight and nearly 40% of women aged 15 to 49 years suffer from anemia. The rate of inadequate intake of vitamin A is still very high, nearly 60%, and more than 20 million people in Bangladesh, mainly children, women (including pregnant and lactating women), adolescents, and the elderly suffer from chronic deficiencies of vitamin A and essential minerals like calcium, zinc, and iron.

Children lacking sufficient micronutrients in their daily meals eventually become malnourished, showing stunted growth and a lack of normal development. Micronutrient deficiencies can cause irreversible damage to children by hindering brain and cognition development. Preventing this requires children and adults to consume foods rich in micronutrients like small fish, other animal protein sources, vegetables, and fruits. But most poor households have limited access to micronutrient-rich foods, generally consuming instead a diet dominated mainly by boiled rice, which gives energy but not ample micronutrients. This will not do—pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, infants, toddlers, and elderly people in Bangladesh should be consuming more nourishing small fish for better growth and development. This benefits everyone and leads to better performance in daily life.

Small indigenous fish species, particularly carplets like mola (Amblypharyngodon mola) and dhela (Osteobrama cotio) contain large amounts of micronutrients, especially vitamin A, calcium, iron, and zinc, all essential for proper nutrition and health. Compared to commonly available large fishes, mola and dhela contain 50 to100 times greater micronutrient content per unit weight of edible flesh. Eating small fish at greater quantities and frequencies can boost a person’s nutrition, health, and well-being. However, aquaculture in Bangladesh tends to focus on larger fish species, and the large fish commonly farmed in the country do not contribute significantly to micronutrient intake. Much of the small fish of Bangladesh are caught in floodplains and natural waterbodies, yet sadly, overharvesting of these wild fish over decades and gradual deterioration of fish habitats have led to a significant decline in these artisanal fisheries.

“Bangladesh should be consuming more nourishing small fish for better growth and development”

Large fish aquaculture has been on the rise in Bangladesh, boosting the production of carp, pangas, and tilapia. Meanwhile, households are being deprived of nutrient-rich small fishes such as the species mentioned above. In addition, the method of extensive pond polyculture commonly practiced in Bangladesh can end up completely drying out ponds and waterbodies. Many fish farmers in Bangladesh consider small fish to be “weed fish” or a nuisance, killing them through poisoning before stocking their ponds with larger species. There are other threats to Bangladesh’s native small fish species: rampant encroachment of inland open waterbodies for crop farming, indiscriminate use of pesticides in agriculture, and the destruction of small fish stocks by harmful fishing gear. All this is resulting in massive damage to the biodiversity and production of small fish.

Turning things around

This problem must be tackled with innovation. And it’s high time to act—the natural abundance of mola and dhela is diminishing fast. We should formulate well-thought-out guidelines and implement policies to inspire broader domestication and a small fish-consumption culture to assist Bangladesh in its quest to become a healthy and smart nation. The country needs to emphasize diversification in aquaculture species to include nutrient-rich indigenous small fishes for enriching households’ diets.
Mola and Dhela fish
As noted above, innovation is key. First, these two fish species—mola and dhela—must be properly domesticated. Progress is being made here. To date, mola has been domesticated in some parts of the country, and now it’s dhela’s turn. This can be achieved fairly easily as both species share similar habitats and food.

Second, we need further real innovations in terms of fine-tuning mass egg fostering and development protocols (both naturally and artificially induced through hormones) and culturing techniques (both for monoculture and polyculture with large fish) for different regions of the country.

Third, the country should work harder to promote innovative nutrient-sensitive aquaculture; that is, small fish aquaculture through both monoculture and polyculture with carps and other large fish species, whether it be in ponds, rice fields, or floodplains. New technologies in user-friendly formats must be made accessible to smallholder farmers, and at their levels of capabilities.

A South Asian small fish revolution

A revolution in small-fish smallholder aquaculture can be mimicked in other South Asian countries such as Nepal, India (especially in the states of West Bengal, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Odisha), and Pakistan, as these countries are almost in the same situation as Bangladesh, and both mola and dhela are indigenous to these countries, as well. Developing innovative small fish egg production protocols and aquaculture methodologies, creating an efficient fish distribution supply chain, promoting small fish as staples, and proper nutrition education will finally help Bangladesh and its neighbors break the malnourishment barrier.

Micronutrient-rich small fish must be added to young children’s meals to make sure that they can grow up healthy, smart, and resilient. Cooked, semi-cooked, or stir-fried small fish can be ground into a fine paste and added to child-friendly meals of rice and vegetables. For example, Khichuri (small fish, rice, lentils, and vegetables) is a tasty dish high in micronutrients and easy for young children to eat. Small fish, fresh or dried, can be mixed into bhortas or paste (mashed foods) and eaten with rice and vegetables, as well. Dried small fish can also be made into a powder, or pickled by adding spices and oil, allowing households to enjoy them year-round throughout the country and region. In addition to promoting these cuisines to the general population, governments should include these products in school lunch programs, and in meals at homes for the elderly, hospitals, orphanages, residence halls at public and private colleges and universities, and correctional facilities.

“A revolution in small fish smallholder aquaculture can be mimicked in other South Asian countries.”

There’s more. These two fish species—mola and dhela—can become keys to eradicating anemia, night-blindness, and osteoporosis, and in assisting brain development, cognition, and bone formation. These small fish species are extremely beneficial for small children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and elderly and convalescing people. The micronutrient-rich fish can act as a vital source of nutrient-dense, high-quality protein and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids; thus, greater consumption of these fish combats malnutrition and helps boost community health substantially by reducing stunting and wasting in children and anemia in women. They can also prove instrumental in reducing hypertension and blood sugar levels while assisting South Asian nations with achieving both their domestic nutritional targets and the SDGs by 2030.

Innovations to improve the domestication, farming, and consumption of mola, dhela, and other target small fish species have high prospects for enhancing food security and nutrition at the regional and global levels. This is one area of innovation Grow Further might support.

Mostafa Hossain, Ph.D., is Professor of Aquatic Biodiversity and Climate Change at Bangladesh Agricultural University

Photography and art credit: Bangladeshi cuisine fortified with dried small fish. Mola (A. mola) and dhela (O. cotio), two species targeted for aquaculture innovation. Mostafa Hossain.

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