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On behalf of the Nutrition Working Group of the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services, I’m writing to build on other contributions that have mentioned the roles that Rural Advisory Services (RAS, also known as Agricultural Extension) can make to more nutritious value chains. As they directly interface with farmers and other value chain actors, RAS often play a major role in informing farmers’ decisions. These decisions are key to realizing more nutrition-sensitive value chains. At present, however, RAS typically have limited familiarity with nutrition or the recommendations they could make to support better nutrition in their local contexts.
Our nascent working group serves to bring attention to the role that RAS can play in supporting more nutritious value chains and food systems, and to develop a research agenda for outstanding questions of how to best leverage RAS for these ends. We will soon unveil a repository of training materials and other information on how to integrate nutrition within extension and advisory services, and disseminate new information and networking opportunities via a participatory listserv.
For more information, and to join our listserv, please visit: http://www.g-fras.org/en/community/working-groups/nutrition-working-group.html
This conversation stems in large part from the “silo effect” that limits interaction among sectors concerned about the same population, in this case, rural agricultural communities. Intuitively, both agriculture and nutrition relate to food, yet our training institutions rarely provide instruction that covers the continuum from production to nourishment, leading trainees to “master” one aspect (e.g. soil fertility, postharvest handling, infant & young child feeding) without having a strong understanding of how their expertise relates to the entire food system. Agricultural colleges should increasingly aim to train graduates to understand the complexity of food systems, including health and ecological implications.
Given the current divide between nutrition and agriculture in most institutions of higher learning, one way to start to bridge the gap would be by integrating basic nutrition information into core agricultural classes. This would include both basic knowledge competencies, particularly related to food-based approaches to improving nutrition (food based dietary guidelines, dietary diversity). It would also be beneficial to include the “how”; in the context of training for agriculture extensionists, training in participatory facilitation methods would improve their ability to impact both nutrition and agriculture production behaviors. For trainees less likely to directly interact with farmers, the “how” may include a more in-depth overview of consumer demand in the context of market systems and the health and economic implications of healthy and less healthy dietary patterns.
I do not yet have direct experience doing this effectively, and have struggled within a US institution in my efforts to encourage agricultural training programs to include nutrition. As is often the case, specific donor funding for this purpose or policy requirements would help nudge institutions in this direction. Growing interest in transdisciplinary research and training allows institutions to “shine” when they adopt programs that address these complex issues, but I do not see a strong system of rewards either for institutions or academics who work in these spaces, as of yet. Journals, academic awards, and even institutional awards are still largely slanted toward expertise of a very narrow sort instead of systems approaches, although there are examples of where this is changing. I hope that through the INGENAES (Integrating Gender and Nutrition within Agriculture Extension Systems) project we will have the opportunity to test various approaches in several diverse contexts over the course of the next 2+ years.
Reviews of existing evidence on the ability of food-based interventions to improve nutrition consistently find that nutrition education (or its absence) is related to the project success in increasing access to healthy, diverse foods. This is also bearing true in high-income countries, where evaluations of efforts to improve access to nutrient-dense foods in low-income neighborhoods are not resulting in the intended dietary improvements.
Yet innovation in the area of food and nutrition education is often an afterthought, and is typically underfunded. The nutrition community often bemoans a perceived inability to compete with the well-funded corporate advertising campaigns seeking to sell less healthy products. Education efforts also tend to be poorly conceived, inadequately tested among the target audience who may also receive insufficient exposure to the promotional messages.
One promising innovation is FAO’s ENACT course now being implemented in 14 African countries. Participating undergraduates studying fields as diverse as medicine, agriculture, and nutrition are now equipped to effectively communicate and teach about food and nutrition.
In select African and Asian countries, Alive & Thrive has conducted well designed behavior change campaigns via diverse channels, including mass media as well as interpersonal counseling. This multifaceted approach is demonstrating positive results at scale.
The ability of well-designed food and nutrition education campaigns to deliver desired health and nutrition impacts depends on increased funding and research to these activities. The required investment should not be a deterrent, however: if marketing and promotion were not useful mechanisms for achieving increased consumption of specific foods, lucrative companies would not spend billions of dollars advertising their products.