Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), 19-21 November 2014

Improving diets through nutrition-sensitive agriculture

Nutrition-sensitive agriculture is an approach that seeks to maximize agriculture’s contribution to nutrition. This strategy stresses the multiple benefits derived from enjoying a variety of foods, recognizing the nutritional value of food for good nutrition, health and productivity, and the social significance of the food and agricultural sector for supporting rural livelihoods. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture also entails targeting poor households, promoting gender equity, and providing nutrition education so that household resources are used to improve household members’ nutrition, especially that of women and young children. Finally, it involves linking agriculture to sectors that address other causes of malnutrition, namely education, health and social protection.

FAO promotes nutrition-sensitive agriculture through a variety of partnerships and capacity development initiatives. For example, since 2011, FAO has partnered with the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) to help countries mainstream nutrition in their national agriculture investment plans. More recently, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), FAO, World Bank and Renewed Efforts Against Child Hunger and undernutrition (REACH) conducted a training session on the topic, with the goal of expanding the pool of experts who understand the links between agriculture and nutrition. The group is now working to develop the workshop into a series of training sessions. Senior nutrition policy officer at FAO, Bibi Giyose, attended the workshop and shares her expertise.

What were the main takeaways from the workshop on nutrition-sensitive agriculture?

The focus of the workshop was on integrating nutrition objectives and concerns in the entire agricultural investment planning process. The training emphasized planning for nutrition interventions from the beginning of a project instead of retrofitting existing programmes, which entails conducting a thorough situation analysis to understand nutritional problems and their causes to identify ways investments in agriculture can prevent malnutrition. Prevention is key—besides the obvious health benefits of stopping malnutrition before it starts, preventative programmes are more cost-effective than those that concentrate solely on treatment. The workshop also emphasized the importance of monitoring and evaluating the impacts of agricultural investments on food consumption and nutrition, to document positive results but also to take corrective measures if negative impacts are observed.

What is your experience working with nutrition-sensitive agriculture?

As a senior nutrition policy officer, I work on mainstreaming nutrition considerations into policy and programmes, finding out how agriculture can best serve nutrition goals in addition to its economic benefits. Right now, it is important to look at global trends in agricultural development, specifically how different agencies and sectors can and are addressing nutrition in their programmes. Understanding who is doing what is essential to ensuring an effective, coordinated response.

What are some examples of how agriculture can improve nutrition in a household or community?

Instead of focusing exclusively on cash crops to be sold on the market, rural farmers can use their land to cultivate a variety of commodities, including fruits, vegetables and small livestock like chicken. This can improve household food security, nutrition and the economic status of the family and the community. For many households, agriculture is also a key source of income which can be used to purchase a wider assortment of foods as well as access health care and clean water, for example. Investing in home grown school feeding programmes will support smallholder farmers by giving them a guaranteed market, but also encourage the proliferation of crops and foods that will be nutritionally beneficial to children.

How can the current trends/norms in agricultural development be changed to improve nutrition?

There needs to be a mental shift in the way we currently view agriculture. It encompasses more than just cereal crop production—from horticulture to forestry and fisheries, agriculture should be seen not only as a means to an end, but as an essential process for improving the quality of foods available to the community and ensuring healthy soils and ecosystems for farming in the future. Our food systems are also rapidly transforming, as we witness an increasing reliance on purchased and processed foods even in rural areas. While agriculture modernization and greater market integration is associated with decreased levels of undernutrition, we are also seeing a worldwide increase in overweight and diet-related chronic disease such as diabetes, while deficiencies in vitamins and minerals remain unacceptably high. It is therefore urgent to place the promotion of healthy diets and nutrition at the heart of agriculture policies and programmes.    

This requires us to improve our indicators and create measurement systems that give an accurate picture of how agriculture affects diets, and then use this information to drive policy change. Programmes should focus more on prevention of all forms of malnutrition, and nutrition should be incorporated into agricultural investment plans to ensure that there is a dedicated budget for nutrition-sensitive initiatives.

Besides agricultural production, what are other ways the food system can be changed to improve nutrition?

Nutrition must be incorporated into all aspects of the value chain – starting with nutrient-rich soils that will improve the quality of the crops, and extending across the food system to other elements like food safety, food processing, food fortification and proper food preparation and consumption in households. Food processing is essential for making nutritionally rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products, available year-round. It can also reduce food preparation time, and thus—like other labour-saving technologies—enable women to spend more time caring for their children, namely to breastfeed. Nutrition education initiatives that explain which food combinations will provide essential vitamins and minerals can have a big impact as well.

Do you have any examples of nutrition-sensitive agriculture projects or partnerships within FAO?

Nutrition in the early stages of life is essential to being well nourished, healthy and productive throughout one’s lifetime. FAO is therefore working with local farmers, processors and markets in several countries to source quality ingredients for complementary feeding programmes, starting at six months of age. When paired with continued breastfeeding, these complementary foods provide essential nutrients for growing children’s dietary needs and for their optimal physical and mental development. In Cambodia and Malawi, FAO is working with extension workers and women’s social services to introduce improved complementary foods, using local ingredients, through cooking demonstrations. FAO also promotes improved school nutrition in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), through school gardens, healthy school meals and integration of nutrition education in school curricula. In Cape Verde, for example, FAO is working with the government, UN agencies and civil society organisations to develop local procurement of fruits, vegetables, beans and fish from local producers to diversify school meals.

At the policy level, in countries across the globe, especially members of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, FAO is working with Ministries of Agriculture, Ministries of Health and other relevant institutions, to ensure nutrition objectives are embedded in agriculture policies, and that agricultural interventions are integrated in multisectoral nutrition strategies. It supports the creation of an enabling environment and capacity development for successful field level interventions to be taken to scale. 

Read more about FAO and nutrition-sensitive agriculture here:


photo ©FAO/Believe Nyakudjara

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