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Dr Khin Mar Cho is a nutrition specialist and director at Cornell University’s College for Agriculture and Life Sciences in the USA. She is currently providing training and support for farmers at a new food and nutrition project in Chin State with Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development.
She spoke to DVB about the need for education in the community about nutrition linked to agriculture and food security.
Q: Tell us why you are interested in nutrition?
A: I’m interested in looking at how we accommodate education programmes in the community around nutrition. How do people understand the culture of food and how do they survive? What are their favourite foods? How to stretch their money to get the most nutritious food–affordable, accessible and seasonal? Don’t use too much oyster sauce, soy sauce, oil and sodium salt. Then how do we link agriculture with nutrition?
I myself am a farmer’s daughter; my parents have a farm in the Irrawaddy delta. So I am also a farmer as well as a nutritionist and lecturer at Cornell University in New York. We have 100 acres and we grow rice, legumes and beans. We also have a fruit orchard. We do crop rotation and have mango trees, turmeric on the ground, and black pepper–so you have three crops in one. That’s why I can say I have hands-on knowledge of crop science as well.
What are the big challenges you see in Chin State?
In terms of food accessibility, even in rural areas in Chin State, there’s a lot of variation of vegetables but the new generation is neglecting the natural food; they want easy to get takeaway food like fast noodles, or 3-in-1 coffee, or ketchup instead of tomatoes. So the accessibility is changing; even though accessible food and vegetables are there, it’s not their first choice to eat them.
So the younger generation is suffering a lot of health issues. I’m hearing a lot about stunting because of hypertension and a lot of sodium consumption: one is through preserved food and the other via intake of sodium through condiments like fish sauce and oyster sauce. There is no link between the consumers and the producers.
Tell me about the project you are working on?
This particular project is looking at nutrition at a micro level. Our project will cover 25 villages in the first year, and we are conducting a needs assessment first; what are the available crops for the season, and how does it compare to cropping analysis from 20 or 30 years ago. Based on this information and information about the individual — how do they eat it? how do they prepare food? where is their access to the daily market? — we hope to then understand the culture of food. It’s different in every part of the state, so we are collecting this information which will teach us a lot.
There are a lot of problems with crop growing in Chin State because of natural disasters, so we need to find out which crops are the most resilient and profitable.
What are some of the opportunities for new areas of growth in agriculture in Chin State?
Chin has always been known for its apple orchids, but now because of a lack of education and slump in management this market has decreased. Another one is avocados.
What’s your definition of ‘profitable’ in terms of nutrition?
It doesn’t just mean getting more quantity of a product or quantity of money, but the real profit means taking advantage of healthy food – that is, a health profit.
Some people think we don’t need to teach about nutrition, even though they themselves may have diabetes and keep eating sugary foods and a handful of medicines. In poor areas like Chin State, they don’t have the money to go to town and pay for expensive medicine. That’s why basic nutrition education is needed urgently. If we are talking about poverty eradication or reduction then this is the most basic step: keep them healthy. They can save money by eating healthy food and invest more in their children’s education or farming.
What are some of the challenges for farmers in Chin State?
Transport of produce is still very expensive if you want to travel to the big markets. For example, you can’t transport strawberries for more than two days. So we need to think about the most effective crops during change of weather conditions particularly in Chin State with a heavy rainy season. So it is not just about high-yield crops or high technology but also about high value-added products, such as drying vegetables and teaching those skills to farmers, i.e. how to do this without losing nutrition.
The key is first understanding the farmers and their culture, not just walking in with technical science or new ideas, but talking to them directly–they know a lot about their country and crops from generation to generation so we need to respect that and add to it.