Although Sri Lanka’s universal health care and free education policies over the last few decades helped the country to achieve most of the related targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies have remained obstacles to realizing other food security goals.1 Micronutrient deficiencies (MNDs), also known as ‘hidden hunger’, refer to an inadequate level of vitamins and minerals in the body and remain widely prevalent across Sri Lanka as a result of inadequate intake or poor absorption by the body.
Towards a Solution
To address this challenge, the World Food Programme (WFP) is working with the Government of Sri Lanka to eliminate hidden hunger. Food fortification is one of the approaches that is being adopted and promoted as a cost-effective way to address micronutrient deficiencies. Many countries now require, by law, that certain foods be fortified with some vitamins and minerals.
A joint programme between WFP and Food and the Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Scaling up Nutrition through a Multi-Sector Approach, was implemented between 2015 and 2017. The programme’s two key objectives were to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government investments in food security and nutrition and to promote nutrition education among schoolchildren and teachers to achieve attitudinal and behavioural change.
WFP has provided support to the Government of Sri Lanka to identify a cost-effective and efficient use of fortified foods to address existing micronutrient deficiencies. As rice is the staple food product in Sri Lanka, WFP is in the process of providing technical assistance to Sri Lanka’s government to determine the potential of scaling up its fortification in the country. Due to the wide consumption of rice (300 gm/pp/day) in Sri Lanka, fortified rice offers great potential in terms of reducing anaemia and other micronutrient deficiencies.
WFP Sri Lanka has provided technical and financial support to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health to implement the national roadmap for rice fortification, which was developed in 2015. To build on existing knowledge in this area within the country, the Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group identified regional knowledge exchange on food and rice fortification as one of the prime mechanisms that can benefit Sri Lanka.
To facilitate in-country discussion and regional sharing, WFP, in partnership with the Food Fortification Initiative, supported the country’s Ministry of Health in the holding of a national food fortification workshop in 2017. This workshop brought together over 100 participants from different sectors, including participants from India (national government and Odisha state government representatives) and WFP staff from Bangladesh. Key outcomes included implementing the voluntary fortification of rice and strengthening advocacy for the distribution of fortified rice through the national social safety net systems.
The workshop also inspired a South-South rice fortification knowledge exchange among Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka. WFP Bangladesh organized an experience-sharing visit for the team from Bhutan and Sri Lanka to learn from Bangladesh’s rice fortification initiative. The main focus of the mission was for the participants to understand Bangladesh’s fortified rice and kernels production processes. For this purpose, WFP Sri Lanka facilitated the visit for the Deputy Director of the National Food Promotion Board (NFPB) under the aegis of the Ministry of Agriculture in Sri Lanka, an entity which has received WFP support in establishing a fortified rice blending facility in Sri Lanka, along with the WFP Sri Lanka nutrition officer.
This South-South exchange has helped Sri Lanka’s delegates to understand the national policy and regulatory framework adopted by the Government of Bangladesh in order to create an enabling environment to scale up rice fortification and be inspired by private sector involvement in the production of fortified rice and fortified kernels. Several exchanges with Bangladesh Government authorities, private sector partners and the WFP team revealed Bangladesh’s ground-breaking progress in rice fortification. Private sector engagement was one of the key takeaways and Sri Lanka’s National Food Promotion Board will now organize an advocacy forum to engage with the private sector there to identify opportunities to commercialize fortified rice.
Following the visit to Bangladesh, another cross-country exchange was organized. A Sri Lankan delegation, including 18 members of several ministries, academia and WFP staff, visited Delhi, India. They met with the WFP India Country Office and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and learned about the mechanisms that India has adopted to establish food fortification standards and guidelines.
This South-South exchange provided the Sri Lankan delegates with concrete ideas on how best to take the initiative forward within their context. This advocacy was based on a strong commitment from the Government of India and its understanding of food fortification as a cost-effective value addition to address micronutrient deficiencies. In Sri Lanka, the use of social safety net programmes is currently under review as a way to launch the scaling-up of rice fortification. The experience of Bangladesh and India in setting standards and using social safety nets for rice fortification has inspired Sri Lanka to establish its own programme.
As a result of Sri Lanka’s regional exchanges with Bangladesh and India, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health will submit a memo to gain the cabinet’s approval to use fortified rice in the national social safety net programme, such as school meal programmes. This will be followed by the establishment of national standards and regulations for fortified rice, and steps towards establishing a SUN Business Network, which will also help to create a supporting environment.
To replicate this good practice, factors such as the landscape for introducing fortified rice in the country and the government’s interest and commitment should be assessed prior to planning such an exchange. Although the context in each country varies, it is crucial to understand the starting point within the country and have a clear objective for the exchange. For instance, the contexts in India and Sri Lanka for implementation of fortified rice differ significantly. However, common themes exist, such as an interest in setting standards and regulation in the face of voluntary fortification, as well as an interest in using fortified foods within the national social safety net programme.
Sustainable Development Goal target(s): 2.1, 2.2, 17.6, 17.9