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Re: Nutrition-enhancing agriculture and food systems

Janice Meerman FAO , Italy

Dear all,

The moderators ask: What policies can make agriculture and food systems more nutrition-enhancing?

In response, I would like to pose another, more nuanced question: What incentives can be created for formulating such policies in the first place, not to mention then moving them forward from rhetoric to reality?

Despite the recent explosion in research and writing regarding nutrition sensitive agriculture, this issue remains largely undiscussed. Lawrence Haddad sums up the situation in a pithy blog post written late last year titled: What do we want? Nutrition sensitive agriculture! How do we incentivize it? No clue.

Haddad comments: “It is important to know what to tell policymakers when they ask "what can I do?" But I would argue it is more important to (1) know how to get more of them asking the question in the first place and then (2) understand the incentives and barriers to getting any subsequent policies implemented across sectors.”

Recent work on enabling environments may help shed light on the 1st question (e.g. the 2013 Lancet Nutrition Series, articles 4). Moreover as global momentum for nutrition sensitive agriculture increases, opportunities for taking action at country level are growing. CAADP’s Nutrition Capacity Development Initiative, facilitated by FAO and hosted by NEPAD and the AU Commission, provides a current example.

Question 2 may prove even tougher to answer than question 1. Unlike nutrition, the incentives that drive food and agriculture systems are primarily profit-oriented.  As such, nutrition sensitive agriculture initiatives will succeed best when their outcomes are framed as compatible with market signals reflecting the behavior of producers, wholesalers and other members of the agricultural value chain. To do this, advocates for nutrition enhancing agriculture must work harder on preaching outside the choir regarding win-wins which provide economically compatible nutrition sensitive incentives to stakeholders in agriculture. By definition, these “win wins” are already considered important inputs for nutrition sensitive agriculture and hold value for the sector more generally. For example:

  • Agricultural research and other production-related productivity improvements: These reduce the unit-costs of production which, in turn, cause incomes of farmers to increase and food prices to decrease, both of which have positive nutrition and economic growth effects. The Green Revolution is a case in point. Farmer incomes increased while wheat and rice prices dropped significantly.
  • Labor saving technological change: Changes in food production technology that reduce demands on women’s time have been shown to improve nutrition by increasing  time available for child care, food preparation, accessing clean drinking water, etc. They also improve the well-being of women.  In turn, labor saving technological change in activities traditionally performed by women outside the food production system leaves more time available for food system activities. These include food production per se, but also better and more food processing as well as increased income generation through formal and informal food-system based employment.
  • Crop diversification: Efforts to increase diversity in food production result in lower production risks and better nutrition. Crop diversification also contributes to ecosystem health, and in some cases is good business as demand for both horticulture and animal source foods is rising.

Each of these examples demonstrates how the addition of nutrition sensitivity as a policy goal need not reduce economic efficiency.  However, it is also important for advocates to admit that in some cases win-wins are not possible. In these situations one approach is to argue that while trade-offs may come at the expense of lower economic growth, they are likely to be highly compatible with pro-poor development goals such as empowerment, gender equality and social welfare. These human development goals are now cited routinely in much of the discourse on economic growth as well as included in national development, agricultural, and rural development plans. As such, if advocates play their cards right, a political incentive can be created in situations where an economic one cannot.

This contribution draws on “Overview of Nutrition Sensitive Food Systems: Policy Options and Knowledge Gaps”. The latter was prepared by the author of this post,  based on material provided by Per Pinstrup-Andersen for this online forum and the  ICN2 Technical Preparatory Meeting on nutrition enhancing agriculture to be held in November 2013.