Mung, mashkalai and other veg proteins

Mung, mashkalai and other veg proteins
Nerun Yakub

The FE reported recently (Monday Nov 14, 2011) that Japanese investors are keen on a collaborative venture to produce high quality ‘mung’ bean sprouts on Bangladeshi soil, entirely for the Japanese market, with the potential of adding at least a billion dollars to Bangladesh’s export earnings. Preliminary activities have started already with the formation of a joint stock company by the interested entrepreneurs of both countries. It is expected to provide jobs for some 3,000 farmers, if this valuable legume is cultivated on 1,000 hectares of fallow land by 2012. We are told, the project would also enhance availability of mung —- one of Bangladesh’s best tasting and valued lentils — for domestic consumption. The company means to sort the crop by size, — above and below 4 mm —- choosing the large ones for they produce the best sprouts. This would perhaps require about 60 per cent of the total production, while the smaller seeds would be left for the domestic market. Bangladeshis in general have not yet cultivated a taste for the nutritious bean sprouts, preferring to enjoy the lentils as daal or khichuri.

Japan imports some 60,000 tonnes of the bean sprouts it consumes annually, 90 per cent of which comes from China and the rest from Myanmar. As China’s economic prosperity pushes costs up, Japan is obliged to look for alternative sources and Bangladesh appears to have the potential, provided more efficient Japanese know-how is employed to ensure maximum yield. Per hectare yield of ‘mung daal’ here is only 0.8 tonnes whereas it is 1.2 tonnes in Japan, but with quality seeds and better cultivation methods such snags could hopefully be overcome in no time.

Most of Bangladesh’s demand for this yellow lentil is met through import, costing some Taka 150,000, paid in foreign exchange. If all goes well the joint venture would be able to contribute significantly to internal demand as well as meet Japan’s appetite for large size bean sprouts. It may be of interest to note that the traditional, and much-loved ‘Sonamukhi’ mung has been losing out to higher yielding mung varieties on account of its low yield. But it is still highly valued on account of its superior flavour and delicious taste. It is hoped the joint bean sprout project would facilitate conserving this endangered variety for diversity’s sake, even while investing in quality seeds for commercially better and bigger yields, for both home consumption and export.

It is reassuring to note that farmers are expecting a bumper harvest from another variety of lentil, mashkalai or black gram, which has been cultivated extensively in the northern districts this year. This will certainly help reduce the deficit in domestic production of pulses in general, and bring it back to the daily diet —- provided it is offered at affordable prices to the majority. The government ought to work out a mechanism whereby the nutrients — and lentils are a very good source of vegetable protein —- for a balanced diet could be accessed regularly by the neediest sections of the population, without hurting the primary producer, the farmer.

Per capita consumption of the poor man’s protein,as pulses are called, has been dwindling ever since agricultural policies started focussing on round-the-year rice production. The average per capita intake of daal in Bangladesh is estimated to be about 15 grams, just a third of the WHO recommended requirement. In fact, inadequate protein in the diet has been seriously impacting the population ever since the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, with its excessive focus on grain production, at the expense of the pulses.

People at large have been finding it extremely difficult these days to balance meals as the gaps between the purse, palate and nutritional needs seem to be growing wider than ever. Government efforts at rationalizing essential food supplies and prices have not been working as well as desired. The majority have been forced to forgo fish, meat, milk, eggs and lentils altogether, meeting their calorie needs only with the staple rice and the cheapest vegetables available. With basic food prices skyrocketing, people try to cope by cutting intake, in terms of quantity as well as quality — and its impact on health and well-being can only be imagined. According to a Worldwatch monograph, Bangladesh is perhaps the only country in the world where children have been growing shorter than their parents on account of a protein-poor diet!

According to the 2007 Bangladesh Demographic Health Survey (BDHS) 43 per cent of children under five years bear the tell-tale signs of chronic malnutrition, that is, ‘stunting’; 30 per cent of women are ‘abnormally thin’ and another 12 per cent ‘moderately or severely thin’. There are other details that clearly establish the stark truth about large sections of the population. Most are suffering silently from persistent hunger, deprived in terms of both micro (vitamins and minerals) and macro (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) nutrients and also in terms of the quality and quantity of food intake. Far too many people are under-fed and ill-fed at all times, due to both poverty and ignorance.

A nation’s food security should include, in addition to the staple grains, adequate and affordable supplies of pulses or lentils as well as nuts, roots, fruits and vegetables, and at least milk and eggs, if not fish and meat on a regular basis. These essentials should be within the buying capacity of most of the people, rather than the minority of well-to-do. Of course people may be quite well-fed even without expensive fish and meat in the daily diet, as any intelligently planned vegetarian meal proves. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, with traditional plant-based diets, rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts, and supplemented by only small amounts of animal products, such as milk and eggs, people can enjoy long lives with virtually no nutrition-related diseases.

Unfortunately, projects in the nutrition sector over the past decades have had little to show in terms of raising sustained awareness about the need for such balanced food intake. Nor has there been any meaningful measure to check the destruction of whole grains in the milling process. So called modern rice and flour mills have been doing tremendous harm by over- milling the grain and destroying the valuable B vitamins, a deficiency in which leads to the debilitating disease, beriberi. The inter-generational impact of long- term nutritional deficits can be devastating for the nation as a whole. It would be unconscionable for policy makers to continue giving lip service while ignoring the reality on the ground concerning food security. Balanced nutrients must be made affordable and accessible to all if human resource building in the true sense of the term is a priority of our avowedly pro-people government.


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