Re: Nutrition-enhancing agriculture and food systems

Dr. Richard Cottrell World Sugar Research Organisation, United Kingdom

Nutrition–enhancing agriculture and food systems

Contribution to FAO on-line discussion forum from

World Sugar Research Organisation


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The current discussion on the links between agriculture and nutrition has produced a number of different themes and emphases.

It is difficult to address undernutrition, malnutrition and overnutrition when they occur in isolation, let alone in combination.  This is especially true, since the causes of obesity and malnutrition are widely acknowledged to be multifactorial in nature.  A reduction in the intake of sugars and nutritively-sweetened beverages has been frequently referred to in attempts to address obesity (see a number of the background papers to this discussion).  However, one of the expert papers in this discussion (Nicklas and O’Neil) seriously questions the evidence behind policies which specifically target one food, food group or nutrient.  The FAO approach to nutrition sensitive development promotes ‘interventions that promote dietary diversity’, ‘enjoying a variety of foods’ and for ‘people to consider their total diet’ (see background paper by Thompson and Amoroso) - an approach which has been endorsed elsewhere (Nicklas and O’Neil, 2013; Freeland-Graves and Nitze, 2013). A moderate intake of sugar, within the context of a balanced and varied diet, with adequate physical activity, is in keeping with such an approach, encouraging consumption of certain foods (e.g. cereals, sharp tasting fruits etc.), improving diet diversity and helping to meet micronutrient requirements.  Sugar also functions in providing texture, colour, flavour and acts as a natural preservative and substrate for fermentation.   

In the light of this discussion, it is also worth mentioning the contributions that sugar can make to addressing food security and nutritional adequacy which are frequently overlooked.  In this context, sugar production, and beet and cane cultivation, is vital to economic growth in many countries, contributing on a large scale to rural development, industrial and agricultural employment, and support of the rural population. Sugar may also play a role in attempting to ensure adequate energy and can act as a vehicle for micronutrients which may be subject to deficiency in developing countries. 

1.    The agriculture and often the whole economy of many developing countries may depend on one or a few commodities destined principally for export, including sugar.  In 2011, raw sugar was produced in approximately 120 countries.  Many of these countries are in the developing world, where sugar production remains a key contributor to growth of the rural economy.




The case of India

·         Around 5 million hectares of land are under sugarcane cultivation in India.

·         Sugarcane is grown by 6 million cane farmers.  These farmers, their familial dependents, and labourers (~half a million skilled and unskilled workers) are dependent directly and indirectly on this agricultural crop.

·         Prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, with dire consequences for mobility, mortality, productivity and economic growth.  25% of the world’s undernourished population are located in India.

·         Sugar is valued as an inexpensive source of energy and has been distributed to the low income families at a subsidized price through the public distribution system.

·          Almost half of the sugar mills in India (~230) are cooperatives, many providing additional infrastructure to the industry such as education and healthcare.


2.    Sugar can help to combat micronutrient deficiency and is an essential ingredient in oral rehydration solutions (ORS).   Post-harvest fortification of foods has been successfully employed in addressing micronutrient deficiency, but requires a relatively developed food processing industry for successful implementation. Sugar has been successfully fortified with vitamin A and iron, and has been cited in FAO documents as an alternative vehicle for iodization.  Currently, sugar plays a significant role in fortification in Central and Latin American countries as well as in Africa.  In the developed world, many sugar-containing foods are important sources of micronutrients (e.g. fortified cereals and dairy products).  In addition, the use of sugars and glucose together with salt, are used in oral rehydration solutions to prevent dehydration and in the treatment of acute diarrhoea.




The case of Zambia

·         Sugar for domestic consumption in Zambian has been mandatorily fortified with vitamin A since 1998. At least 50% of the Zambian population has regular access to fortified sugar (NFNC, 2007, 2008).



3.    Sugarcane and sugarbeet crops are sustainable agricultural crops.  There is general agreement that food production systems need to become more sustainable, in order to improve food security in the long term and alleviate pressures on production arising from population and income growth.  However, there is little agreement on how this should be achieved (FAO Conference 2013; Tilman et al. 2002), in particular, how to incorporate nutritional objectives within a broader framework of sustainability and biodiversity (Lang 2010).


In this context, sugarcane has an extraordinary capacity for growth; its cultivation can be undertaken with the minimum consumption of chemical products and therefore be highly compatible with the environment and soil conservation. Sugar beet is an important break crop which increases biodiversity and provides direct benefits to agricultural land. Growing beet and adding co-products from beet processing lead to improved soil conservation, enhanced fertility and reduced soil compaction. Process energy optimisation and agricultural yield increases have provided additional benefits in reducing greenhouse emissions and increasing land efficiency.




While short term approaches are needed in order to reduce the number of people currently suffering dietary shortages of macronutrients or micronutrients, some long term sustainable solutions should also be initiated to meet the greater need for staple foods anticipated in the future. Causes of both under and over nutrition are multifactorial and may be best addressed with an understanding of the local issues.  A ‘one-size fits all’ solution may help in addressing some issues, but not others

Additional references not supplied within the text


FAO (2013) The state of food and agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization Rome.

FAO Conference paper C 2013/2 Add.1 (2013). Food and Agriculture Organization Rome.

Freeland-Graves JH, Nitzke S (2012) Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: total diet approach to healthy eating. J Acad Nutr Diet 113:307-317

Lang T (2010) in “Sustainable diets and biodiversity: directions and solutions for policy, research and action”. Proceedings of an international symposium “Biodiveristy and sustainable diets united against hunger” 3–5 November 2010

Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome.

Nicklas TA, O’Neil CE (2013) Prevalence of Obesity: A public health problem poorly understood.  Expert paper produced for the ICN2. (

Tilman D, Kassman KG, Matson PA et al. (2002) Agriculture sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418:671-677.

Thompson B, Amoroso L (2011) FAO’s Approach to Nutrition-Sensitive Agricultural Development. (