Contact us:

Contributions for Making agriculture work for nutrition: Prioritizing country-level action, research and support

Rahul Goswami Unesco Asia expert on intangible cultural heritage; adviser, Centre for ...

Dear FSN moderators and friends,

Thank you for framing a few questions around a subject that is of utmost importance, and also for extending the deadline to submit responses. I will prefer responding to these questions in a different order. My reason for doing so is that this topic has been framed in a way that can tend to obscure key actors responsible for a number of the problems concerning cultivation, the provisioning of food, the price at which it is available, the choices that can be made by consumers, and the consequences of being unable to make choices that suit them.

Hence "Making agriculture work for nutrition" may divert us from other matters that seek to reshape agriculture. If agriculture is working as it used to (following some of the evidence that we have of pre-industrial agriculture), then the nutrition aspects are taken care of implicitly. If agriculture is not being carried out as it used to be, then our experience and knowledge (qualities that lead us to such a forum in the first place) tell us that the transformations it has been forced through, in the last few decades, are a culprit. To begin to rethink agriculture as a delivery system for nutritional goals (such as the MDGs) disconnects agriculture from its role as the locus of communities which, in their most durable forms, have been 'resilient' (a term much in vogue nowadays) for centuries. If we then ask, what has changed, I think we will find a raft of influences have changed in ways most fundamental to how crops are cultivated - in our discussions, let us not treat these as inert, for doing so will seriously if not fatally hinder our understanding of why the nutrition question is being posed on this forum.

What will be hindered or otherwise obscured? Let's look at this premise: "There is now considerable interest among international development organizations and practitioners in agriculture programming and policy to improve nutrition." Yes there is now, as there was eleven five-year plans ago in my country, India, when central planning aimed to do better to feed the hungry and to pay the farming household fairly for its service in providing foodgrain. What has changed in the interim? Some of the answer lies here: "... the increasing number of international development institutions formally weighing in on the topic ...multiple institutions for planning, implementing, and supporting nutrition-sensitive agriculture, as well as a number of gaps that limit action on these principles". In the introduction to this topic you posed a few questions.

These are, one by one: what are the main approaches we collectively see as most important? To answer, I cannot see there is a 'collective' approach - for countries (if they are small in size and population) and with sub-national regions (roughly corresponding to agro-ecological regions) there will be approaches based on more or less important needs, whether these needs are finding livelihoods, ensuring that water and land resources are not grabbed, finding alternatives to migration out of rural areas, and similar concerns. The second question was: what are some practical recommendations that can more effectively promote, support, and guarantee the integration of nutrition into agriculture and food security investments? To answer, I doubt any of us are in a position to provide guarantees of any sort. National governments can provide counter-guarantees (as these instruments are called, supported by policy measures) to 'investors' that help their 'confidence' (to invest). It is uncommon to find national governments providing counter-guarantees with similar alacrity and eagerness to their own citizens these days on the matter of providing adequate food at an affordable price. So we in this FSN community may have the knowledge and experience to make a host of practical recommendations, all at the local level - but in what way are these actions related to the idea of investment, and investment by whom?

And finally: what research is needed? To answer, if we revisit the research conducted in the rural regions of, let us say, 'developing' countries 50 and 60 years ago, we will no doubt find enough to guide us today too. The social medicine followed by Rudolf Virchow in Silesia in the late 19th century, as an analogy, has as much relevance today as it did then. The 'Indore method' of composting, documented by Albert Howard and Yashwant Wad in the first decades of the 20th century, is more relevant today perhaps than it was then. We would be ill-advised to ignore the research conducted in the past simply because of its vintage and the perception that the major problems that beset us today - climate change, galloping urbanisation, destructive macro-economics - are beyond the scope of the learning these can provide.

Hence, taking the last question first (this is: which agriculture investments would you suggest that can improve nutrition? and can you think of interventions that at the same time correct other harms of current approaches and policies, thus creating further opportunities?), here is my short response. There is no agriculture 'investment' to improve nutrition other than the farming household and the cultivating community being allowed to follow the routes its accumulated wisdom and oral transmission of practice suggests. No more 'investment' in agriculture per se is required. Investments in social sector services - such as good quality and affordable rural healthcare, culturally relevant education - which may combine with sober and helpful local legislation and laws that protect land and water resources, these can allow cultivating communities to find sources of nutrition and provide non-growers (in towns and cities) the cereals, vegetables, fruits and herbs they need. Indeed, there have been and continue to be 'harms' embodied ni current approaches and policies. But will their correction amount to justice or opportunity, and if opportunity, then for whom?

Looking at this landscape from a country that produces more than enough to feed itself (India) and which nonetheless has about 20 per cent of its children under five being wasted, 43 per cent underweight and 48 per cent stunted (in terms of numbers this is about 54 million children under five years in India who are underweight which constitutes about 37 per cent of the total underweight children in the world), the question of opportunity can sound both simple and sinister. This is because there has in the last five years (and especially since the 2007-08 food price escalation) there has been no dearth of new programmes and consortia created that aim to increase yield, deliver micro-nutrition and bio-fortification, facilitate 'better' access to 'new' markets and in general tackle hunger by promising innovation and private sector savvy.

Consider one of these, called a 'New Vision for Agriculture', and which is led by the Consumer Industries Community (whatever that means) of the World Economic Forum. This programme, in its own words, "works to develop a shared agenda for action and foster multistakeholder collaboration to achieve sustainable agricultural growth through market-based solutions". Using the idiom so typical of the Davos gatherings this programme claims to have "defined a vision that highlights agriculture's potential as a positive driver of food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity worldwide". Indeed, if such organisation and such prose was all that it takes, there would have been no need for an FSN Forum, would there? Market utopias are advanced by the profit motive, and are usually easily recognised as such, but again over the last five years they have become very much more sophisticated than before, and can nowadays usually be identified through descriptions such as "a diverse network of global and local stakeholders ...engaged in initiative activities, including governments, international organisations, civil society, farmers organisations, research and academia ...a high-level multi-stakeholder group, provides advisory and leadership support".

The point here is, however these are described, the monetary power and policy influence exerted by such consortia is enormous. The Grow Africa partnership, a joint programme, if I understand it correctly, of the African Union, NEPAD and the World Economic Forum, has said it will "accelerate sustainable investment in African agriculture to improve food security". Political support comes from the G8 and has taken the form of what is called a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Who are the 'stakeholders' in this case, other than the intergovernmental grouping and programme secretariats? There are 49 companies which together want to invest more than US$ 3 billion. Is that combined figure more than the annual combined budget on agriculture of the 54 states of the African Union? If it is, would it be used in ways that support diverse farming systems that ensure that adequate diets are accessible to all, and which simultaneously support the livelihoods of poor farmers and that are ecologically sustainable? The history of the expansion of the global agri-food industry - especially in the last ten years in what are euphemistically called 'emerging economies' - is convincingly otherwise.

To move on to the next question, which is "What can our institutions do to help country governments commit to action around your recommendations, and to help ensure implementation will be effective?" I ask you accept that my recommendations will be more or less rural- and smallholder farming household-oriented as will be others on this list. Our institutions - I am taking these to mean local institutions, in the form of small farmers' cooperatives, growers' associations, enlightened consumer groups, progressive administrators at district level - are being and will continue to be subjected to shocks caused by the volatility of prices (in what macroeconomists call the 'real' sector, indicated by the steady upward swing of consumer price indices) of food, and also by the volatility transferred to their local economic circles by the gyrations in the agricultural commodities markets. Macroeconomic planners (unfortunately, many are still cut from the same cloth, and display little useful appreciation of actual household conditions in the 'real' sector) periodically complain that such volatility has a negative impact on economic growth, discourages investment and reduces the accumulation of physical capital. I can't see these effects as provoking complaint amongst the growing number of practitioners and advocates of the Transition movement, for 'degrowth' becomes one of the several key characteristics of such a society. To touch the question again, can our current local institutions embrace a 'degrowth' manifesto which delivers food and nutrition security just as surely as it insulates itself from the volatility associated with over-exposure to the 'market'? Probably not yet, but this is a worthwhile goal. For, ranged against us is the oft-repeated logic that diversification (in and of food marketing systems and its retail front-end) and industrialisation (of agriculture) remain important factors in order that agriculture contribute to GDP growth. You can see this logic at work in the G20 Commodity Markets sub-group summary report on the impacts of excessive commodity price volatility on growth.

We are asked how, "to support the design and implementation of this programme [the one we outline under the first question], where would you like to see more research done, and why?" and to do justice here I would like to dwell upon the 'research' meme as it is applied to smallholder cultivation, to organic agriculture, to subsistence cultivation, to a human-sympathetic study of cultivating households. What might we find with a research guidance that follows cultural pathways, rather than one (so zealously peddled by phalanxes of new consortia) that is technology-driven and whose impulses are oriented towards trade and markets? I would like to explain by backgrounding my home region, in coastal western India, the small state of Goa. Here, the distance between the sea and a long chain of hills (the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot that has this year been included in UNESCO's World Heritage sites) that marks the western boundary of the enormous Deccan Plateau of peninsular India is no more than 55 kilometres at its widest. In this zone, so favoured by the south-west monsoon, there are to be found the remnants of a most ingenious rice-fish farming system which skilfully employed the tidal estuaries and a myriad small waterways. These were commons, administered collectively and their use governed by an elaborate system of coding. In the early 1980s, Goa and the adjacent regions were home to paddy histories that included over 20 varieties of rice unique to this agro-ecological region, a number of them saline-tolerant. Further towards the hills we find the dense integrated farming plots which have carefully, painstakingly accumulated growing diversity for its food value, for medicinal purposes, for commercial sale, for fruit and to fulfil the need for a ready supply of offerings (flowers, certain herbs, certain fruit) to deities (prayers and the religious calendar when read with scriptures serve as media that reinforces the ecological principle, that enshrines the ancient kernel of sustainability). In these plots, through tiered layers that rise to the canopies of the mango tree and the areca-nut tree, we find also the 'neem', the drumstick, the tamarind, small groves of coconut palms, edible gourds and a trove of local leafy vegetables.

These rural homes, for whom cultivation is a cultural activity just as much as it relates to supplementing cereal staples with the rest of the typical vegetarian food basket, have followed orally principles of sustainability for more generations than any of them can count. They maintain high diversity in on-farm niches and to buffer against climatic and economic adversities; they have long long ago combined species to enhance productivity and yields (especially in aquatic systems, which are in rapid decline over the last 20 years because of the pressure of urbanising settlements); they mastered crop rotations and intercropping, they mastered too the algebra of nutrient availability, developed their local science of pest and disease control and water management. Transmitting this lore from parents to children the knowledge of management practices that use complex, ecologically-grounded approaches (no place for off-farm inputs brought in by the seduction of short-term outputs), they invested great care in the nurturing of soil biodiversity (long before the Indian national agricultural research system began classifying the sub-continent's soil groups). They studied and conserved arthropod biodiversity to increase localised understanding of how agro-ecosystems function - this became a key ingredient in effective pest management in rice production in the rice-fish farming system, which in turn depended upon careful observations about the monsoon, and the fresh water-brackish water cycle that balanced from one season to another the entire system and so transported the community with a degree of contentment and I am sure thankfulness.

In the same way, I understand that in the Philippines there are still more than 300 kinds of edible fruit and that no more than a handful have been, as they now tend to say, 'commercialised'. There are reputed to be edible nuts in the Philippines that the urban markets are still ignorant about and yet despite the equal legacy of cultivating communities stewarding tropical diversity of utmost richness the country also contains one of the world's largest pineapple plantation businesses, whose daily and annual operations alike are overhung with the mountainous debt incurred to keep that particular supply chain in good order - it is a question of investor confidence whose ugly marriage to retail mendacity robs the growing communities of the Philippines of their accumulated wisdom, generation by generation. Yes we need a research, one that can identify and arrest this loss. And even so, what research can replace the lost rice strains of my native Goa, where the fat and fragrant red grains have been displaced by pale hybrids bearing sterile alphanumeric code names?

This is a well-trodden path, although one that governments and an internationalised agri-research network has only nodding acquaintance with, and that too reluctantly. Organisations such as the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) have about 40 years' experience working alongside such communities. In its published work, the IIED has repeatedly emphasised that measures to increase 'resilience' (whether for climate change or to absorb the excesses of globalisation) must view food, energy and water as interconnected and mutually dependent - indeed I would have added traditional knowledge systems, for these underpin our values and behaviour. In a similar way, this has been the core of UNESCO's Management of Social Transformations Programme, which is of a similar vintage and has more than 40 years of study and careful reflection that can guide us through troubled times ("A Guide for the Perplexed', E F Schumacher had once written, and so very useful that slim volume proved to be). These are the holistic approaches that must also be applied to economic analysis on what is now being called adaptation planning. I am convinced it is vital to use traditional knowledge and the rich raft of management skills available within communities that live with their legacies, to follow such planning - it is, in this view, the moral compass for the 'green economy' which is a term blithely and glibly appropriated by industry and their partners in government.

And so on to the final poser, "if you were designing an agricultural investment programme, what are the top 5 things you would do to maximize its impact on nutrition?". The foregoing paragraphs will help, I hope, justify why I cannot answer this as an individual or as a representative of an organisation or group. It is really not in our hands, nor ought it to be. In cities and urbanising regions of the world in which households - having struggled with food inflation for five straight years and facing no relief in the visible short term - are taking to growing some of their food basket (see FAO's first status report on urban and peri-urban horticulture in Africa) the impulse and practice to find and maintain food independence takes on a myriad shapes and directions, a kaleidoscope of growing creativity in hostile environments. Do these households - in dense housing blocks crammed into fast-expanding suburbs, in shanty towns ruled by water supply and land mafias - have choices that are just and fair? No, they are making desperate attempts, using whatever residual community knowledge they can muster, to find an equity from within. Consider what the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food said about the right to an adequate diet (he called it the agriculture-food-health nexus and it was presented to the 19th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council). "The health impacts of bad diets are well known ...unhealthy diets increase the risks of cancers of the breast, colon, prostate and other organs. Low intake of fruits and vegetables, for instance, increases the risks not only of cardiovascular diseases, but also that of gastrointestinal cancers." A homogenous approach to insuring the poor and the indigent (regulated nonetheless by endless grey paragraphs of WTO directive, subject nonetheless to the need to preserve 'shareholder value', that final metric of all things financial) will further burden these households. The cash transfer programmes that have begun in several countries over the last five years and which will be emulated in many more (mine included) are not agents of change, rather they are agents of the idea that chronic dependency can be an effective tool of governance at the most local level. The corollary is that other behaviours - by households and by rural communities, convinced that reclaiming their right to grow and to choose their food and nutrition futures - is beginning to be seen as declarations of independence. In our labours to make as much sense of it all as we can, do we stand for science, for equity and fairness, for the means with which hunger may end, or for an independence rooted in cultural values and respectful of the knowledge streams that brought us this far without endangering our environment?

Thank you and regards, Rahul Goswami

Additional notes:
1. See the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)
2. In 2012 August, FAO recorded that the international prices of grains averaged 23 percent higher in July than June- maize at record levels; export prices of maize increased sharply in the first three weeks of July and remained firm to the end of the month while international prices of wheat followed a similar trend to those of maize through July.
3. See Oxfam's report on the world's largest commodity traders which have a significant impact on the modern agri-food system. "Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus, are dominant traders of grain globally and central to the food system, but their role is poorly understood," said the report. This report considers the traders - collectively known as the ABCDs - in relation to several global issues pressing on agriculture: the 'financialisation' of both commodity trade and agricultural production; the emergence of global competitors to the ABCDs; and some implications of large-scale industrial biofuels, a sector in which the ABCDs are closely involved.
4. See this report by Der Spiegel on price surges since the beginning of the agricultural crisis in 2008 that cannot be explained by normal factors. "Market prices for rice, for example, sometimes shoot up by 30 percent in a single day," said the report. Growing demand causes futures prices to rise, which ultimately affects the real market- which is precisely the problem. Many studies show that futures contracts affect prices on real markets, and experts only disagree on how large the effect is.
5. Cargill is the world's biggest grain trader and produces meat, animal feed, food additives and a host of other products. Cargill CEO Greg Page wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post, "How to ensure the world's food supply". He wrote that the keys to meeting the world's food needs are freer trade, the elimination of mandates for biofuels and "closing the agricultural productivity gap between Africa and the rest of the world."
6. The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is a programme by the government of the USA in which 45 multinational corporations are participating. These corporations are reported to have committed to investing billions of dollars in Africa.
7. Chinese agribusinesses are changing the landscape of farming at home. China Dialogue in an analytical feature said that "the new face of agriculture in China is no longer the household farmer but people like Liu Yonghao, president of the US$8.8 billion agribusiness New Hope Group and China's fourth richest person". This company claims to process 750 million fowl and 8.5 million pigs a year and already owns 16 feed factories outside of the country.
8. Shenggen Fan, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, which is one of the CGIAR institutes), is reported to have said that the food price crisis "is not here yet" but that "if droughts in India, Russia and a couple of other major food producers become worse, we will see continued tightened food supply. Trade restrictions by these countries will make the situation worse." This is an extremely problematic viewpoint as it ignores (a) the crisis that has not departed since the 2007-08 food price escalation, and which has deepened since 2011 as a cursory look at country CPIs shows, and (b) that food inflation is being advanced as evidence that trade restrictions are to blame, when in fact it is exposure to global price volatility as a result of such trading that has been transmitted to local food markets and which has helped drive up food inflation.

Dr. Kathleen Kurz United States of America

A few lessons learned thus far in trying to improve nutrition through our agriculture and food security projects:
“Nutrition” has different meanings – being clear about them in each project or policy context is essential to good planning, goal setting and approach.
Nutritionists tend to seek to reduce the stunting and wasting rates (the poor nutritional status) among children under 2 years, and often also to reduce maternal and child anemia and vitamin A and iodine deficiencies. Agriculture and food security specialists tend to picture increasing the nutritional quality of diets in households, assuring adequate vitamin, mineral, protein and fat content. Having enough quantity of food so as to avoid hunger tends to be categorized more as household food security than household nutrition. The two are related, but not the same. Agriculture and food security projects are well-suited to improving the nutritional quality of diets. If a goal of a project or policy is to improve nutritional status (reduce stunting, wasting, anemia and vitamin and iodine deficiencies), however, two other types of interventions beyond diversifying diets are essential: improved care such as the behavior elements of child feeding practices and hygiene, and improved health such as preventing or quickly treating diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia. All three – diversified diet, care, and health -- are needed to improve a child’s nutritional status; if one is missing, it will become the limiting factor; and often all three limited where child stunting and anemia are prevalent. If a project seeks, for example, to improve maternal and child dietary diversity, then the outcomes against which it is evaluated should be maternal and child dietary diversity, but not child stunting.
Awareness in households and communities of the importance of dietary diversity and of good child growth is low, and the best communication channels for increasing awareness are not always clear.
The term “hidden hunger” was coined for micronutrient malnutrition, but actually applies to the vast majority of child stunting and wasting as well. Unless a child is severely malnourished, he tends to look small, and in many countries with stunting prevalence near 50%, small looks normal. Raising awareness about the problem whose impact looks normal is extremely challenging. This is particularly true amid myriad other development priorities whose impacts are visible. A robust country- or region- specific communication strategy is essential, including knowledge on how households and communities perceive nutrition, and what and who are the key influences on raising nutrition awareness.

Kathleen Kurz, PhD
Principal Development Specialist-Nutrition
DAI, 7600 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 200, Bethesda, MD 20814

Final Year Economics Students (group 1)

What can our institutions do to help country governments commit to action around your recommendations, and to help ensure implementation will be effective?

There are many ways your institutions can help country government’s commit to the actions, these are just a few:

  1. Coordinate and integrate nutrition based programs across state agencies and governmental organizations nationwide with the aim of getting expert advice on strengthening program coordination and implementation.
  1. Contribute more to the decision making capacities in developing countries by guiding governments on how to effectively formulate policies and strategies for agricultural development given certain technical and political constraints. Your institutions can also seek more avenues for obtaining more accurate state and local data to guide your decision-making and policy formulation. This is very important because accurate data about a country’s nutritional portfolio is an essential aspect when deciding how and when to allocate resources to address the issue of nutrition intake.
  1. The Institutions can also help governments commit to action by providing more grants and low interest loans for nutrition based projects, they can also assist by convincing and getting donors to contribute and support to cash based intervention such as free cash grants and vouchers to much needed families (especially in LDC’s), this can help increase household purchasing power. However, these cash based interventions should be based on the magnitude of under-nutrition.
  1. Assist with capacity building efforts, by encouraging and supporting initiatives such as PROFAV worldwide. ( find out more at: )
Ms. Angela Olegario International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA), France

Dear Contributors and Moderators;

Allow me to share with you this symposium that is coming soon which hopefully will provide  some insights on the topic under discussion.  The symposium can provide some information on what we know, what we don't know and how we can move forward in relation to fertilizing crops to improve human health.  I hope the link works.

Thank you.

Mr. Subhash Mehta Devarao Shivaram Trust, India

It is my view that investments in ‘Nutrition through Integrated Sustainable Agriculture and for rural producers’ to set up and staff their producer co ops/ organizations/ company (PC) with professionals will ensure over a billion smallholder rural producer communities will have access to nutritious food at farm gate prices and at the same time correct the mistakes made in the past, current and proposed supply side approaches and policies, most of them focusing on Green Revolution (GR) / conventional technologies.

Smallholder producers, mostly resource poor, illiterate, out of sight and out of mind are over burdened, as ‘Public Institutions’ providing services have deteriorated/ non-existent during the last many decades. To fill this and other gaps, rural producers need to set up and staff their producers companies (PC) with professionals, to take over these problems/ responsibilities, manage risks (other than on farm activities) and focus on costs. The PC intervention will effectively fill the knowledge and other gaps to design, implement and manage multi-sector integrated sustainable agriculture programs that work in the large scale for producing safe, nutritious and healthy food. The PC set up by rural producers is also a good platform for institutional and human capacity building, delivery of Government programmes and providing the need based management services.

Evidences from most producers who converted from conventional (GR) to the local low cost integrated sustainable agriculture, meet their communities’ nutritious food needs, have measurably and demonstrably improved the lives of rural communities - world’s most vulnerable people in developing countries. The local practices have proved that they are internally consistent for integrated sustainable agriculture and externally synergistic to these smallholder producers. The local ecology and greater overall nutritious food production for meeting their needs and at farm gate prices, suggest that integrated low cost agriculture of the area is the only way to sustainably involve the over one billion resource poor producers globally, mostly women, for economic growth and to feed the future (FTF) growing populations. This will ensure access to nutritious food security, safety of the environment; reduce hunger, malnutrition and suicides among these rural communities while improving purchasing power, net incomes and livelihoods.

The US government, through its FTF programme is working with this in mind to develop IAR4D to ‘reenergize and reorient’ and in positive ways, to grow safe and nutritious food for feeding the future (FTF) and in a short time. Further, ‘Government funding and programmes require mechanisms of accountability, ensuring that public funds invested actually benefit the marginal, resource poor and vulnerable populations’, says Rajiv Shah, Administrator, USAID. 

My views given above are in keeping with the outputs of the numerous consultation processes I have participated in over the last several years.

Mr. Ewan Robinson Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom

Apologies for this contribution coming in late. These recommendations come from John Humphrey, Spencer Henson, and Ewan Robinson, drawing on research to link agriculture and nutrition through value chains undertaken by GAIN and the Institute of Development Studies.

  1. Provide learning and analysis tools to agriculture projects

We need to share and disseminate learning and tools so they reach new and ongoing agriculture projects. Agricultural programmers and practitioners may not be aware on how best to design interventions in order to maximize nutrition outcomes and link ongoing activities to nutrition.

Projects need to systematically identify which groups undernutrition reduction activities are designed to benefit; they should map the multiple pathways agricultural interventions can use to enhance nutrition, including the following:

  • - promoting production and on-farm consumption of nutritious foods
  • - promoting ‘off-farm’ consumption of nutritious foods (including by farming households in other areas, agricultural workers, and urban population.) Make nutritious foods accessible and affordable to these populations through interventions in value chains, including purchasing crops, processing, distribution, retail and marketing
  • - raising farmer incomes, and using education, behaviour change, etc. to enhance the link between income and nutrition
  1. Improve the evidence base on agriculture-nutrition

We need a better evidence base for undertaking where and how agriculture can help improve nutrition.A recent systematic review (Masset, Haddad, Cornelius, & Isaza-Castro, 2012) found that very few agricultural interventions were designed in a sufficiently rigorous way to allow assessment of nutrition outcomes. This study also found that available research does not provide conclusive evidence that agricultural interventions can reduce stunting among young children.

Research is needed to better define the relationship between of agriculture-nutrition interventions and other nutrition-relevant interventions (i.e. health services, sanitation, behaviour change, etc.) and the relative importance of these approaches in tackling the causes of undernutrition. We need to know in which contexts and for which groups agriculture-nutrition interventions are the most appropriate approach, and when other approaches should be the primary focus.

  1. Invest more in nutrition of key groups beyond farming households

Most policy recommendations on agriculture-nutrition focus on interventions into agricultural production and food consumption at the farm-level (see Herforth 2012), and most aim to improve nutrition for farming households. This is a critically important population with a high vulnerability to undernutrition. However, a farm-level approach alone cannot address the majority of the undernutrition burden, which affects populations off-farm, including urban populations and landless agricultural workers.

To address these groups’ access to affordable, acceptable and nutritious foods, interventions and research need to address the agri-food value chains that can or could provide nutritious foods to populations in need, including processes of shipping, processing, distribution, retail and marketing. These interventions must happen alongside and connect with the on-farm interventions that promote the production of nutritious foods.

For example, work by GAIN and other institutions to promote orange-flesh sweet potato in Mozambique focused on providing services to farmers, but also linked farmers through value chains to merchants, urban retailers and small-scale food processors. The project supported retailers in urban areas to acquire a reliable supply of high quality sweet potato tubers, and to promote and market their health benefits to consumers based on tubers’ orange colour. Projects have also piloted food products that incorporate orange-flesh sweet potato, such as so-called golden bread, in order to make the food accessible and desirable to a much wider population group, both on- and off-farm.

  1. Research and interventions need to pay more attention to the role of the private sector

Much of the current efforts on agriculture-nutrition tend to overlook the importance of the private sector, instead focusing on donor-funded agricultural interventions. However, given that a majority of the world’s population accesses most foods through value chains that include private sector actors, their role will need to be addressed, including overcoming barriers and aligning incentives for private sector actors to invest in and profit from producing and delivering nutritious foods to target populations.

See the attachment:summary of recommendations
Peter Steele FAO, Italy


Some final thoughts: nutrition & agricultural production

Last day for making those contributions for what has been one of the more interesting and technically challenging FSN debates in recent times and not least because ‘nutrition’ is fundamental for just about every aspect of human development – no people, people in poor health, people struggling to make a go of things or those who simply don’t care - and everything else becomes of secondary consideration.

This, of course, pre-supposes that people are the nexus of our debate and their importance, role and aspirations always take priority. No one, as far as I can see, has tried to shift the debate into shared environmental care, use of natural resources for other species and the longevity of climatic changes that are slowly shifting those global goal posts in which people and their agricultural production systems will continue to co-exist (although Peter Carter has pointed in this direction). There is also reference to the ‘Do no harm’ approach to socio-economic development by a second correspondent. Scope for another debate perhaps.

The FSN facilitators will be making their appraisal of the key issues to arise around their request for direction with new investments. Amongst the wish-lists and imagination of the many contributors, I particularly enjoyed the more pragmatic inputs provided by:


Key issues/sectors/recommendations

Lavinia Gasperini

Making education all-inclusive and available for all people (and especially rural people); and teaching nutrition within the range of life-skills required of a productive life.

Lisa Kitinova

Encouraging horticulture production wherever possible.

Reduction of losses in the food chain.

Jane Sherman

Eating habits & knowledge.

Producing to market demands.

University Guyana 6

Consumer focus.

Supply channels & packaging.


Mine is also a request to be more pragmatic about what can be achieved – my earlier contribution - especially with limited resources, and targeting people who are not always interested in being the focus of that investment (and who may indeed prefer that television in preference to nutritious foods). My key words continue to remain ‘private sector’.

Well done everyone – an excellent debate.


Dr. Emile Houngbo Agricultural University of Ketou (UAK), Benin

How Could Agriculture Contribute to Nutrition In Africa?

The capacity of agriculture to contribute efficiently to nutritional security is strongly linked to the quality of the agricultural sector management at the national (macroeconomic) level.  The form of management which could facilitate the development of this sector and increase its contribution to nutrition is the form which minimizes the risks faced in agricultural activities in the country. The agricultural activities, and especially in Africa, face farming risks (biological, climatic and agronomic risks), and economic risks (slump, drastic price downfall, rooting, etc.). The minimization of these risks should prevent agriculture from the loss of some seasonal produces in their period of abundance – mainly the fruits such as tomato, mango, and orange – in order to reinforce their permanent availability during the year. This risks minimization is necessary to improve agriculture performance, and then motivate important investments in the sector and in the best practices such as agroforestry and ecological agriculture. These investments should increase the agriculture contribution to GDP, the State returns and would incite to research financing in order to generate some models of sustainable farming systems. The solution is therefore to motivate the State to invest in public actions such as:

•    Research on the sustainability of the farming systems which integrate the best practices (agroforestry, ecological agriculture, etc.);
•    Support to technological investments for efficient processing and conservation of nutritive seasonal fruits such as mango, tomato, and orange;
•    Organization of the channels of food crops profitable for the farmer, such as roots and tubers which yields could be strongly increased than that of the cereals;
•    Creation/organization of added value links which could generate significant income to all the actors, especially to the farmers who are the greater losing till today.

Agricultural Economist & Sustainable Development Specialist,
University of Abomey-Calavi (UAC),
National Higher School of Agriculture, Ketou (ENSTA-Ketou),
Head, Department of Rural Economics and Sociology,
05 BP 774 Cotonou (Republic of Benin)

Glenn Ashton Ekogaia Foundation, South Africa
Glenn Ashton

Thank you all for your interesting contributions to date.

I would like to look at some more fundamental issues which I feel have not been sufficiently covered.

To improve plant nutrition, I would suggest the examination of two major aspects of the problem, firstly the availability and uptake of nutrients by plants, making nutrients bio-available to humans, and secondly, examining and education around the problem of plant anti-nutrients inherent to several major crops.

As far as making nutrients available I would tend to disagree with the proposal in posting number 6 that artificial fertilisers provide any sustainable or truly productive solution to nutrient availability.

The reality is that the availability of macro and micro nutrients is largely dependent on the health and diversity of the soil biota. If there is a healthy soil biota (the sum of bacteria, fungi, protozoa etc in the soil) then there is a good chance that the available nutrients both within the mineral matrix of the soil and within the portion of humus in the soil can be made bio-available to the root systems and thus to the plant itself. In a barren soil, i.e. one that has been overused, poisoned or damaged by over fertilisation by chemical based fertilisers plant nutrients are either not bio-available or are totally absent. If they are not available the biota needs to be supported and built up. If they are absent then more fundamental steps need to be taken to introduce nutritive sources into the soil, starting with the humic (compost and plant matter) portion and building from there.

It is generally counter productive to rely on totally external supply of plant nutrients for sustainable agricultural nutritional requirements as these primarily artificial sources of nutrition are often not readily bio-available to plants, or are not present in correct ratios. Most importantly the cost of supplying macro and micro nutrients on an ongoing basis is a significant cost to most food insecure and nutritionally challenged communities that they can ill afford.

So, to sum up this point - research needs to be undertaken on local conditions in order that plants can take advantage of what nutrients are available in the soil and secondly, in building up the source of nutrients, so that they can be taken up by the plants and thus made available to those consuming the plants.

Secondly I would like to deal with the issue of plant nutrition looking at the matter of human manuring. While this is a distasteful subject to many communities and cultures it is one of the elephants in the living room that few wish to deal with. The vast amounts of suitable plant nutrition which is wasted in this manner is one of the major breaks in the link of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles.

Humanure, or manure made from human faecal matter is rich in base nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen and so on. It also is rich in micro-nutrients and supportive of a healthy soil biota if properly treated. Accordingly sanitary practices in an increasingly urbanised world need to take cogniscance of the huge losses of nutrient through not using human waste sources of nutrient.

Of course this matter needs to be treated properly. Proper composting toilets are essential. Urine diversion toilets are also very useful as the urine is a very rich source of plant nutrient.

To sum up - we simply cannot waste this important source of plant nutrients but they must be free of dangerous pathogens when used in agriculture.

If these two issues of plant and soil nutrition are not holistically dealt with in traditional farming communities then steps need to be taken to ensure that they are. Further the use of agricultural chemicals and pesticides not only impacts the health of humans but also of the soil and hence of plants. Therefore chemical use must be stopped or at the very least minimised to its lowest possible levels. This reduces the requirement for outside (bought) inputs and increases the chances of local innovation and solutions.

Other methods such as inter-cropping, layering, permaculture practices along with other agro-ecological systems provide hardy, robust methods of farming which shift away from a reliance on a limited number of crops and 'weeds' - many of which are foods, medicines and otherwise useful, and instead provides a more resilient system. This is supported by the IAASTD 2009 report "Agriculture at a Crossroads" and reinforced by the views of the UN Rapporteur on food security in various studies.

Further research also needs to be made into anti-nutrients in crops, especially from local or regional perspectives where a few major crops may provide significant portions of the diet. In this way natural compounds found in plants such as trypsin inhibitors such as those common in many legumes - themselves important sources of plant based protein - may prevent or reduce the absorption of essential nutrients such as zinc, calcium or iron.

Obviously it is worthless to increase nutrient sources if they are not being actively absorbed. This problem can be dealt with through two primary avenues - one using traditional methods such as fermentation, and secondly by addition of admixtures such as lime or clays to break down certain antinutrients. Soy is traditionally fermented and not usually eaten in its unchanged state because of anti-nutrients being high in this legume, which is a major problem with the increasing growing and inclusion of soy in supplementary foods. In some cases the apparent benefits may be outweighed by the actual costs. This is a very important matter given the modernisation of diets, adoption of different crops in traditional farming practices and changes in lifestyle. The issue is too complex to deal with in such a short contribution but several important papers have been written on this issue; Holz and Gibson (2007) provide some useful starting suggestions, as did the Cornell GEO-PIE project on plant toxins and antinutrients.


Finally I note that genetic engineering of food crops has been touted as a way to deal with nutritional shortcomings. I, together with several other far more authoritative researchers, feel that this is a dangerous dead end wherein we are attempting to fix a symptom but not the cause. A major reason for nutritional deficiencies is a decreasing dietary diversity. Attempting to provide single solutions in single crops such as the infamous case of yellow rice is shortsighted and misses the entire reason why the problem exists in the first place.



EconomistViews On-The-Go University of Guyana, Guyana

As you continue in your thrust to seek out ways to "Making agriculture work for nutrition", and further to our earlier contribution, we submit the following:

  1. Integrate Agriculture/ Food & Nutrition Programmes into the School System: Many secondary schools have programmes of such, however, and in light of the recent developments regarding food and nutrition security,  it is imperative that these programmes be expanded, and extended to the elementary schools and even nursery schools. Cultivating good habits at an early age will definitely contribute to a more 'aware' society.
  2. Promote Organic Farming: In Guyana, we have embarked on some initiatives to foster organic farming. This is an area that some amount of attention need to be place if we are to make available wholesome foods to our people.
  3. Endorse Land Reform:Mechanisms must be put in place to facilitate and enhance farming in a sustainable manner. Moreover, with successful land reform and the beneficiaries (farmers) having the "know how" to cultivate the land by applying safe land practices, such as, crop rotation, utilizing manure, etc., in an effort to stimulate higher quality produce, there is every reason to expect an increase in production. In Guyana,  there is a huge amount of arable land, but the problem lies with ownership and use of the land. Therefore, land reform and supporting infrastructure, such as, eduaction, credit and technical assistance  are necessary if output is to be increased.

We are cognizant of the many policies, programmes and projects developed and executed by many nations, however, we believe that greater efforts must be placed on the aforementioned, which the FAO can continue to play a pivotal role.