Like most averagely-informed people I knew that zinc was one of the elements that form a tiny but essential part of our diet. What I did not know was just how important it was or that Pakistan had a big zinc problem — as in not enough of it in the diet of millions and the part that this plays in the stunting of growth in children.
The considerable gaps in my knowledge were filled recently by Professor Nicola Lowe who was in Pakistan as a part of a fundraising group from the Abaseen Foundation (see last week’s column). Dietary deficiencies of vitamins and minerals are present wherever there is poverty. As noted above they affect growth and development in children and there are a number of ways this can be combated — the provision of supplements in tablet form or their addition during the food preparation process. The downside is that both of these require the intervention of external sources and are expensive, as well as not easily reaching those most in need.
There is a third way, and it is this that Professor Lowe and the University of Central Lancashire and Nottingham University in the UK and the Khyber Medical University in Peshawar are researching — potentially with far reaching effects for millions. It is called ‘biofortification’ and in the smallest of unscientific nutshells it involves the breeding of a strain of wheat that has nutritionally beneficial properties. The wheat can be bred by traditional means, has a higher zinc content and forms the basis for that most essential of foodstuffs — the daily bread. During a visit to an Abaseen health centre close to Peshawar the Prof stood before a roomful of sacks of wheat that were the first batch of the seeds that have the potential to alter lives. She looked justifiably happy.
This was a team effort spread over years and is unlikely to make the headlines beyond these few words. Why it is worth writing about is that it is yet another example of an NGO working in partnership with provincial and federal governments for the betterment of countless thousands. Yet it will be an unseen event, a slow burn spread over years with long-term monitoring and evaluation quietly going on in the background. This is not the stuff that twangs the heart-strings, the hollow-eyed kids sitting in a classroom who know that at the end of the day in school they are going back to the brick kilns to work alongside their parents and siblings. There is no fine building to show, no paper records of the vaccinations carried out in the Abaseen-supported health centres and hospitals, just seeds in the ground that may eventually add up to extra vertical inches and enhanced cognition and body mass for the children who eat the bread that was made with the wheat that the Prof and her partners pioneered.
I visited the Khyber Medical University with the Prof I trailed behind taking notes on conversations conducted in the language of hard science that occasionally needed interpretation for this ignoramus. The campus was a hive of activity. Somebody somewhere had decided to spend a lot of money on science. Hard science. The stuff that dreams can be made of if the right linkages are made and ingredients correctly mixed. The director oozed optimism from every pore and spoke of the international partnerships that are the lifeblood of academia. He presided over state-of-the-art laboratories where PhDs worked quietly on projects beyond my comprehension. I asked the Prof — are the facilities here the same as you would find in the UK? Absolutely, said she. There was no second-best here, this was Pakistan at the very top of its game.
At the back of the story is a modest NGO run jointly between Pakistan and the UK. It has two separate boards of governors, is open and transparent, is audited and monitored and may be about to deliver along with partners a local solution to a global problem. Zinc deficits span the globe. If it can be cracked in Pakistan it is cracked for everybody because of the ubiquity of wheat and bread. So a round of applause for the Prof and partners — Tootle-Pip!
Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2017.