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

Kamal Karunagoda Socio Economics and Planning Center Department of Agriculture, Sri Lanka

1. If you were designing an agricultural investment program, what are the top 5 things you would do to maximize its impact on nutrition?

•    Scrutinize the appropriateness of current agricultural development ideas vis a vis improving nutrition.  The rural community had endowed with rich and diverse sources of foods. If analyzed properly, traditional food habits and diversity were able to provide adequate nutrition and nutrient content of those foods were comparable to the modern recommendations.  Many interventions have been adopted to improve agricultural production but impact of bizarre development ideas has resulted less availability quality foods, loss of important plant genetic resources  and less diversity of food in many regions. Participatory approaches in agricultural development planning would make better outcome than top down approaches.  

•    Promotion of appropriate farming systems to improve local availability of food in regions where chronic malnutrition prevails.  

The recent statistics indicate increase in proportion of population with malnutrition.   The prevalence of high levels of malnutrition in rural areas, particularly among agricultural households, indicates that there are constraints in availability, affordability and accessibility to adequate nutrition.  These constraints are brought about by differences in many factors such as institutional setup, infrastructure, socio-economic characteristics, and quality of resource base. Decrease in nutritional status in rural areas needs special attention in development planning.    Investments on R&D and increase in adaptive research, allocation of resources to promote local production of food would improve the local availability and accessibility of food.  Promotion of diversity in farming systems in non-food production agricultural region would be a challenge as workers may not have property rights for lands to invest on food production.  Therefore, innovations are required in such regions to promote appropriate farming systems to cater for nutrition of residential labor force and their families.  
Support for local innovations and scaling up of identified innovations would provide fast track approach to expedite agriculture work for nutrition.

•    Investments in supply chain development and capacity development programs to improving household nutrition.
Improvement in both economic and agricultural indicators, both at macro and micro levels, has been witnessed during the past few decades.  Despite these developments, nutritional indicators of children and adults show deterioration in many regions.  It indicates the influence of other factors on nutrition of households.  The changes in socio-economic environment may have induced households to demand more non-food than food and thus, considerable portion of household’s income has to be allocated to non-food items.  Further, household’s dependency on formal market for food and nutrition has been increased overtime. Therefore, investments in improvement of efficiency of food supply chains, promotion/development of food markets at micro level and concerted effort to improve household’s knowledge on proper nutrition would be imperative investments in promotion of agriculture working for nutrition.  Improved efficiency of markets and knowledgeable households would stimulate demand and supply forces.   The services of extension officers could be enhanced to pass the messages of nutrition for the benefit of farmer community as well as consumers.  

•    Conservation and popularization of traditional food crops/trees to increase local availability and diversity of food.

Traditional knowledge and practices had been in place to protect and sustain agriculture work for nutrition for many decades.  The value of these resources has not been given adequate attention in agricultural policies and interventions that were undertaken to increase food production.  Consequently, many agricultural areas have transferred from high crop/food diversity to low food diversity regions. Degradation of natural resources (soil, water and plant genetic resources), deterioration of local knowledge on nutritive foods are also evident in these agricultural regions.  

The recent advances in agriculture have improved food availability but the capacity of these advances to work for nutritional equity is limited by many economic and non-economic factors.  The climate and geographical heterogeneity of different agricultural sub regions may not provide single solution to the theme.  Regional specific policies that rely on local knowledge and promotion of traditional knowledge/crops related to nutrition would support agriculture working for nutrition. Promotion of participatory approaches in natural resource conservation, increase public investments in conservation of food-plant genetic materials, maintenance of food supply abilities of different land classes (eg. seasonal and perennial crop lands), adoption of strategic policies to avoid causes of degradation of diverse food sources, strategic interventions in private land use on non-agricultural purposes are imperative for agriculture to work for nutrition.  

•    Coordination of production/supply programs to reduce seasonality of supply

Seasonality of food supply may act as a constraint to promote agriculture work for nutrition.  There is a need of technological breakthrough for off-seasonal agricultural production or utilization of natural climate differences to maintain food supply levels.  Further, innovations and incentives are necessary to reduce severe seasonal fluctuation of supply and prices.    It would be a difficult task to coordinate large number of small scale farmers in production decision but, use of ICT would provide cost effective solution to implement supply management programs.   Diversification of farm income sources and institutional development to stabilize farm prices are required for stabilization of farm income.  

•    Promote home gardening and protected agriculture to increase supply during off-season.

Home gardening provides numerous health benefits through nutrition and recreation.  Home gardener’s effort should be facilitated with educational programs  and availability of inputs.  The small gardens could be developed into agricultural gardens that are working  for nutrition.

2. To support the design and implementation of this program, where would you like to see more research done, and why?

i.    More R&D on  locally available plant genetic resources to improve nutrition and use of traditional knowledge related to  nutrition.   

ii.    Use of perennial tree food crops to supplements seasonal crop production and off-seasonal food supply.  The capacity of tree crops in nutrition has not fully utilized and tree crops can provide year round food supply.   

iii.    Use of different land classes to supplement food demands.  More attention has been given to increase seasonal crops in low lands.  The importance of highlands in food production has not given adequate attention and high lands are being converted to non-agricultural purposes.     

iv.    Institutional impacts , particularly laws and regulation, and changes in land markets could prevent land use for agriculture in  suburbs of urban centers. The land masses around urban centers could remain idle due to non-agricultural interests, property right issues, economics of crop production and poor market development.  Utilization of these land masses close to the urban markets needs R&D investments, policy changes and support of many institutions.   

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

1.    Support in  identification of best solution that is adaptable to regional needs and promote institutional partnership to achieve nutritional objectives

The lack of high correlation between economic growth and nutrition indicates the need of alternative measures for agriculture to work for nutrition. In such a situation, policies and research could play an important role in promoting agriculture to work for nutrition. Statistics are available on regions with severe malnutrition problems.  The necessary conditions to overcome this problem are; action plan, targeted R&D investments, promotion of financial and institutional commitments to achieve the targets.  Informal education could be promoted to enhance nutrition and transfer of local knowledge to practice.  Policy directives and budgetary commitments have to be focused more on conservation of diverse food sources and promotion of cultivation.