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Seeking an end to malnutrition

How can smallholders be supported to grow crops that have high nutritional value? (© HKI)
How can smallholders be supported to grow crops that have high nutritional value?

With millions suffering from malnutrition in both the developed and developing world, how can people be supported to adopt nutrient rich diets that are well-adapted to their local conditions and culture? How can smallholders be encouraged to grow crops that have high nutritional value? And what potential do biofortified crops have to address nutritional deficiencies? These and other questions recently came under discussion at a conference organised by The Economist - Feeding the World: Accelerating Global Collaboration on Food Security - held in Amsterdam in January 2013. Some key participants in the discussions and others working in the sector shared their views with New Agriculturist.

How to increase dietary diversity of the poor?

Our Enhanced Homestead Food Production model builds on traditional practices of home gardening, and introduces improved cultivation techniques to increase the volume of production as well as the number and nutritional quality of foods produced, including crucial animal-source foods. The program also often increases household income, which can be used to purchase additional high-value foods. It is important to recognize that it often takes more than knowledge to enable families to overcome barriers to improved nutrition.
Jennifer Nielsen, Senior Program Manager for Nutrition and Health, Helen Keller International

In all places it is essential to remove barriers to accessing a nutritious diet, through increasing income and ensuring the availability and affordability of nutritious foods. Research using Save the Children's Cost of the Diet tool shows that very often the cost of a diet that provides the minimum nutrition requirements is far more expensive than the incomes of the poorest families. Focusing on increasing their incomes, for example through social protection systems, is therefore extremely important.
Liam Crosby, Policy and Research Adviser, Save the Children, UK

Vegetables contribute vital nutrients essential to a healthy diet (© AVRDC)
Vegetables contribute vital nutrients essential to a healthy diet

For smallholder farmers, increasing output for staple food crops like maize and wheat allows farmers to meet household food needs from a smaller land base, freeing up area to diversify cropping such as horticulture, legume rotations and intercrops.
Natalia Palacios, Maize Biochemist, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)

I think the most promising approaches are around the focus on indigenous vegetables and crops. Although these crops are often thought of as 'weeds' or 'poor people's food', they are not only typically very nutritious, but also resilient to pests, disease, high temperatures, flooding, and other impacts of climate change.
Danielle Nierenberg, Co-founder, Food Tank - The Food Think Tank

Collaboration is needed between key stakeholders and across disciplines, including ministries of agriculture, health and nutrition as well as education. Use of enabling policies, for example implementing the human right to adequate food; policies which focus on nutritional quality of agricultural products and research, school feeding programs and policies which enhance participation and empowerment of smallholders in food systems.
Tina Beuchelt, Agricultural Economist, CIMMYT

Biofortification - the pros and cons

Biofortification has some advantages; for instance, in remote areas seed of biofortified crops can more easily be distributed than actual fortified foods. However, biofortification alone does not address diet diversity; a crop biofortified for a single vitamin is not going to supply the full complement of nutrients the body needs for good health. To emphasize single-crop biofortification over crop and diet diversity is to miss a crucial aspect of human nutrition.
Dyno Keatinge, Director General, AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center

Biofortification targets poor populations who heavily rely on staple foods, and for whom fortified food products are not often available. Therefore locally produced, more nutritious staple food crops from biofortification could significantly improve nutrition for the rural poor who eat these foods on a daily basis. Biofortification is highly cost effective. After an initial investment in developing biofortified crops, they can be adapted to various regions at a low additional cost and remain available in the food system, year after year.
Amador Gomez, Technical Director, Action Against Hunger

Are biofortified crops the best approach to address nutritional deficiencies? (© Natalia Palacios/CIMMYT)
Are biofortified crops the best approach to address nutritional deficiencies?
© Natalia Palacios/CIMMYT

Amount of nutrients that can be bred in biofortification are normally lower than what can be given by fortification or supplementation. However, supplementation easily breaks down and depends on continuous interventions, whereas local food production in most cases is a constant. If there is a continuous consumption of biofortified crops, this can improve the nutritional status and health.
Natalia Palacios, CIMMYT

There are no disadvantages except perhaps the time and investment required for research to come to fruition and the challenges of persuading farmers to take a risk with unfamiliar crops. The advantages are many and orange fleshed sweet potato serves as a perfect example of a plant that can be bred to become an even greater vitamin A powerhouse as well as be more drought and pest-resistant.
Jennifer Nielsen, Helen Keller International

From staple crops to minor crops - shift in focus needed?

Absolutely. Local crop species are adapted to local conditions, and traditionally require fewer inputs. In Kenya, millet and sorghum are two local grains that are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Farmers recognize that these local crops are easier to grow, more nutritious, and taste better than maize.
Jason Aramburu, CEO, re:char, Kenya

I don't think we should shift policy and research focus away - we need to recognise that both are important. It will still be true that the first target is for people not to go hungry and the second for people to have healthy diets. Staple crops respond to the first; minor and local crop species, particularly indigenous vegetables, to the second. So it's not so much a question of shifting away from staple crops but more, a broadening of the policy and research focus to incorporate crop diversity i.e. minor and local crop species, which for far-too-long have been overlooked or worse, neglected.
Dennis Rangi, Executive Director for International Development, CABI

Should focus be shifted away from staple crops towards minor and local crop species? (© HKI/Bartay)
Should focus be shifted away from staple crops towards minor and local crop species?
© HKI/Bartay

Presently, world agriculture is in a very unresilient state and change towards greater crop and product diversity would seem to be an immediate, pragmatic and sensible option. Concentrating on maize, wheat and rice research may achieve the goal of feeding the world in 2050 but if it fails to nourish it at the same time we will have invested in a failed strategy. Old fashioned 'Green Revolution' thinking must now be replaced with more balanced investment in agricultural research and development to ensure that both food and nutritional security is achieved.
Dyno Keatinge, AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center

No. Recent food price crises and the resulting social conflict - for example, inflation in wheat prices contributed to the Arab Spring - are testimony of the need to produce more of basic grains. There is however a need for increased attention to nutrition in policy as well as agricultural research, and there is no silver bullet. Several approaches need to be combined and biofortification of key staple crops is a very important one.
Lone Badstue, Gender and Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, CIMMYT

Greater dietary diversity is essential to a balanced diet, however much research has focused on staple crops, while from a policy perspective there is a too often a tendency for food security to be defined by access to staple crops. This focus in turn drives programmatic approaches towards agriculture. For example, Malawi has a very expensive farm input subsidy programme which is targeted at increased maize production, to the detriment of legumes. There is perhaps a lack of research on the legume species, which are traditionally high in protein.
Liam Crosby, Save the Children

Education and empowerment of girls

As female education rises, fertility, population growth, and infant and child mortality fall and family health improves. Increases in girls' secondary school enrolment are associated with increases in women's participation in the labour force and their contributions to household and national income. Women's increased earning capacity, in turn, has a positive effect on child nutrition.
Sandra Mutuma, Senior Nutrition Advisor, Action Against Hunger

Could better education and empowerment of women largely solve the problem of malnutrition? (© HKI/George Figdor)
Could better education and empowerment of women largely solve the problem of malnutrition?
© HKI/George Figdor

Despite their crucial role in agriculture, women face considerable obstacles compared to their male counterparts. One such obstacle is a lack of access to education and knowledge. Evidence shows that educating, and thus empowering, women and girls, has a positive effect on the nutrition, income, health and quality of life, not only of the women themselves, but of their whole families and their communities.
Carina Hirsch, Policy Officer, World Farmers Organisation

Although women are burdened with the bulk of the labour, they often have little say in the family's financial and purchasing decisions. As a result, the men of the household typically choose to cultivate cash crops (e.g. sugarcane, maize) which have low nutritional value. It's vital to educate women and girls (and men) on the importance of balanced nutrition, and how smart planting choices can have a greater impact down the line.
Jason Aramburu, re:char

Quality education builds skills for problem-solving; quality nutrition nurtures human development; access to health, water and sanitation services protect from debilitating diseases; and economic opportunities improve the quality of life chances. All of these are needed to solve the problem of malnutrition.
Jennifer Nielsen

In the words of Hilary Clinton, 'Improving nutrition for mothers and children is one of the most cost-effective and impactful tools we have for poverty alleviation and sustainable development'. However, education and empowerment alone i.e. in the absence of access to seed/planting material of more diverse and nutritious fruit and vegetables will not solve the problem entirely.
Dennis Rangi, CABI

Tackling malnutrition - priorities for research

Crop diversity enhances the resilience of smallscale farmers in places where climate conditions are becoming more unpredictable and severe (© AVRDC)
Crop diversity enhances the resilience of smallscale farmers in places where climate conditions are becoming more unpredictable and severe

Crop specific research should not be a stand alone but done in combination with farming systems research which should include a diversity of crops and mixed crop-livestock systems or aquaculture. Research projects need to analyse, before implementation, potential negative trade-offs of their interventions on gender and nutrition diversity (e.g. an increase in female work load, a reduction of intercrops due to herbicide applications) and mitigate them.
Tina Beuchelt, CIMMYT

Research into varieties of vegetables and fruits with improved yields, adaptability to climate change and high nutrient content, should be a high priority in rural areas. In urban areas, research is needed to develop appropriately fortified complementary foods for children 6-23 months of age. There is also increasing evidence of the toll of environmental contamination on children's ability to absorb and utilize nutrients for growth, indicating that research into strategies for reducing children's exposure to pathogens is also an urgent priority.
Jennifer Nielsen

In developing countries research will need to focus on emerging challenges for the nutrition community, such as the double burden of undernutrition and overnutrition and on future changes in climate, biodiversity, demography, urbanisation, water availability, economy, politics, agriculture, international markets, socio-economic dynamics and conflict. There are generally research gaps in service delivery and scaling up nutrition interventions from small regional programmes to national service provision. And there are research gaps in linking nutrition service provision in emergencies to those in development.
Sandra Mutuma, Action Against Hunger

One of the priorities should be to eliminate micronutrient deficiencies. A report by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank stated that eliminating micronutrient deficiencies could: improve GDP by more than five per cent; enhance the intellectual capacity of populations by more than ten per cent; enhance worker productivity by 30 to 70 per cent; and reduce maternal deaths by up to 50 per cent.
Morgane Danielou, Farming First Co-Chair and Director of Communications and Public Affairs, International Fertilizer Industry Association

What should be the priorities for research to tackle malnutrition? (© CIMMYT)
What should be the priorities for research to tackle malnutrition?

To tackle malnutrition, research should focus on the following areas: research on the biofortification of staple crops for hard-to-reach smallholder farmers; research on biofortification of local crops that are an important part of the diet of both rural and urban populations; and research on barriers to adoption of biofortified staples.
Amit Roy, President and CEO, International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC)

From the perspective of R4D, we need more integrated approaches. Thus in addition to yield and abiotic/biotic resilience we need to increase attention to and investment in: micro nutrient enhancement, gender transformative approaches, participatory approaches, and improved understanding of socio-political and institutional constraints.
Lone Badstue, CIMMYT

Date published: March 2013


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I would like to suggest reducing malnutrition in initial sta... (posted by: Rabi Narayan Rout)


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