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Agriculture for better nutrition

Agriculture has rarely been explicitly deployed to address health and nutrition challenges (© FAO/Giulio Napolitano)
Agriculture has rarely been explicitly deployed to address health and nutrition challenges
© FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Over 1 billion people in the world do not have enough to eat, and many more are affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Under-nutrition can cause severe stunting in children and it is estimated that the effects of malnutrition cause around two to three per cent loss of GDP in developing countries each year. Although the agriculture, health and nutrition sectors all seek to improve human well-being, agriculture has rarely been explicitly deployed to address health and nutrition challenges. Yet despite global agriculture being faced with a myriad of challenges, policymakers need to shift the traditional focus from increasing food production to how agriculture can feed an increasing global population, whilst improving health and nutrition.

India, for example, has become almost totally food secure but continues to face significant challenges in terms of nutrition. In 2012, the Indian Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation reported that 48 per cent of children under five were stunted, due to chronic malnutrition. New thinking on how nutritional needs can be met suggests a combination of approaches, each requiring new research, including: mixed cropping, preservation of biodiversity (particularly of neglected species with nutritional value), biofortification, supplementary feeding and strengthening links with health programmes.

Meeting nutritional needs

HKI works to integrate nutrition, agriculture and health sectors at community and household level (© HKI)
HKI works to integrate nutrition, agriculture and health sectors at community and household level
© HKI

Examples of meeting nutritional needs through a diversity of agricultural approaches were presented at the Second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD2), including case studies on low input gardens in Zimbabwe, health gardens in Mali, and biofortification in South and Central America presented by Action contre la Faim (ACF). Food-based models and integrating nutrition, agriculture and health sectors at community and household level, were presented by Helen Keller International (HKI). Working with local NGOs and local government partners, HKI has established community-based extension services (demonstration farms and farmers) to reach under-served farmers living in poverty. Intensive nutrition/gender training and advice on infant and young child feeding is integrated into the agriculture-service system. Increasingly, such services are also addressing women's needs for skills related to marketing, post-harvest processing and income-generation.

A multi-sectoral approach to improved nutrition through agricultural investments was presented by the World Bank's SecureNutrition initiative. The initiative includes a community of practice, for sharing of information on how to increase the nutritional impact of agriculture and food security interventions, particularly among vulnerable populations. The need for greater diversity within agricultural systems was highlighted by the Diversity for Development (D4D) Alliance. D4D's goal is to strengthen advocacy for research on the contribution of agro-biodiversity to global food production, in particular the contribution of minor and local crops or plant species (becoming known as Development Opportunity Crops and Species - DOCS) to sustainable development.

The SecureNutrition initiative is sharing information on how to increase the nutritional impact of agriculture and food security interventions (© Jamie Martin/World Bank)
The SecureNutrition initiative is sharing information on how to increase the nutritional impact of agriculture and food security interventions
© Jamie Martin/World Bank

The next steps

Building on the progress made so far, participants at GCARD2 agreed to share information on how to increase the nutritional impact of agriculture and food security investments. More specifically, actions agreed for 2012-2014 included rolling out an integrated gender-nutrition-communication manual - to be produced by HKI - and investing in public awareness, training and capacity building activities to empower farmers with communication and marketing skills.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) will work to link smallholder agriculture production with bio-fortified crops, where available, under its 'Purchase for Progress' initiative, and will increasingly make use of locally produced supplementary foods, to prevent stunting in children under two years. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has also committed to identifying research priorities for sustainable diets that link agriculture, nutrition and the environment, and to developing a research agenda in response to the UN Secretary General's 'Zero Hunger Challenge'. This calls for access to food for all, an end to stunting among children under two, ensuring sustainability in food systems, doubling of smallholder productivity and income, and reduction of food waste. The World Bank will continue to seek resources to scale up nutrition-sensitive agriculture, particularly in countries facing high rates of under-nutrition. Meanwhile, the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH) will focus on extending the network of researchers who are undertaking and evaluating agricultural interventions for nutritional outcomes.

WFP is working with smallholders under its 'Purchase for Progress' initiative (© WFP/Ahnna Gudmunds)
WFP is working with smallholders under its 'Purchase for Progress' initiative
© WFP/Ahnna Gudmunds

Participants of both the pre-conference meetings - sponsored by the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health and the Global Donor Platform for Rural Development (GDPRD) - and the GCARD2 session on household nutrition highlighted the issue of interconnectivity of issues affecting nutrition. For example, empowering women was demonstrated to be one of the most effective ways of improving nutrition through agriculture. Harry Palmier, senior partnerships expert at the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, states that one of the major outcomes of GCARD2 was that different partners, who had different but valuable approaches, were able to concretely exchange information and produce a broad agenda to improve nutrition at the household level, reinforcing the value of evidence-based research to change the status quo.

Date published: January 2013

 

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