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Malawi moves to eliminate malnutrition, stunting through biotech agriculture

In 2023, UNICEF launched what it termed as Humanitarian Action for Children (HAC) appeal following revelations that over half a million children are at risk of malnutrition in Malawi.

Prior to the launch of the appeal, UNICEF has conducted a survey, which showed an increase in malnutrition cases among children in Malawi over the last five years, with the challenge accelerating significantly in recent months.

The survey established that in 2023 alone, over 62,000 children, aged between 6 to 59 months, were at risk of severe acute malnutrition (SAM), often called wasting.

“To respond to the urgent needs of 6.5 million people, including 3.3 million children, UNICEF has increased its appeal for Malawi from US$52.4 to US$87.7 million. This funding will be used to meet priority needs, such as ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) for treating severe acute malnutrition, access to safe drinking water, sanitation, hygiene items, health, nutrition, education, child protection services, and cash transfer schemes,” said the UN children agency.

The project team leader Professor Maliro briefing journalists about the progress of the research at Bunda Campus–Photo by Watipaso Mzungu

This echoed findings of the 2017 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), which indicated that 1.07 million children (37 percent) under 5 years are suffering from chronic malnutrition (stunting or low height-for-age).

UNICEF observed that despite recent progress in reducing chronic malnutrition, acute food insecurity—compounded by recurrent climate shocks, preventable disease outbreaks, economic instability, and chronic underfunding in the social sectors — threatens to reverse past gains.

This is coming at a time when Malawi is still grappling with the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Freddy in March, with 659, 000 people currently internally displaced, including many children. Meanwhile, an ongoing cholera outbreak in the country has already claimed over a thousand lives.

UNICEF Country Representative Gianfranco Rotigliano said children in Malawi are at the sharp end of the global polycrisis.

“Food insecurity, exasperated by a growing climate crisis, disease outbreaks, and the global economic downturn, is threatening to wreak havoc and disrupt the lives of millions of children. The prospect of having over half a million children suffering from malnutrition is unacceptable. Without an immediate response, the impact on these vulnerable children will be deadly,” said Rotigliano.

In the first quarter of 2023, with the support of donors and partners, UNICEF assisted the Government of Malawi in screening 140,307 children under the age of five for acute malnutrition. Among them, 522 children were identified as having SAM and were referred to health facilities for further care.

But as Rotigliano observed, without increased support, poor and vulnerable households with children will be left without access to basic services, essential supplies, and social assistance.

It is therefore imperative that beyond the immediate measures, the Government of Malawi and its partners should start investing in long-term solutions by strengthening systems and building resilience within communities to tackle perennial hunger, which is the leading cause for malnutrition and stunting.

To close the gap, National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST) and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), with financial and technical support from Open Forum for Agriculture Biotechnology (OFAB), are conducting research on biotechnology in order to develop nutrient-enriched crops to tackle malnutrition.

The research, which is being conducted at the Bunda Campus in Lilongwe, aims at identifying a lasting solution to pests that tend to lower yields of the staple grain.

Speaking in an interview with Nyasa Times, NCST Director General, Gift Kadzamira, said deploying biotechnology in agriculture, with its numerous advantages, has the potential to fundamentally improve the lives of Malawian farmers.

“In developed countries such as the United States, biotechnology has had a transformative impact on agriculture, serving as a key lever to uplift the living standards of farmers by enhancing crop yields, resilience, and nutritional content, while reducing input costs,” she said.

Kadzamira was, however, quick to emphasize that her commission is exercising care to ensure that the biotech does not harm the farmers they intend to empower in Malawi.

She said the confined field trials (CFT) being conducted at Bunda Campus are part of their stewardship, rigorous evaluation, and open societal dialogues to address potential ecological or health concerns, and to ensure that these technologies truly serve the interests of the farmers and society at large.

Dr. Kingdom Kwapata is one of the lead researchers in the project. Kwapata disclosed that in countries where biotechnology had been tried, farmers have realized significant improvement in their crop yield.

He said through genetic modification, disease-resistant crop varieties can be developed, which could significantly reduce crop losses.

Kwapata further stated that biotechnology can help create crops resistant to extreme conditions like drought or salinity, which can be a bonus in other districts where water is scarce or soil is saline.

“In other countries, biotechnological advancements are leading to the development of biofertilizers and biopesticides, which are environmentally friendly alternatives to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These help improve soil fertility and crop protection while reducing environmental impact and farmer expenditure on inputs and Malawi seriously needs these technologies if we are to eliminate hunger and malnutrition,” he emphasized.

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