Food systems provide for all people’s nutritional needs, while at the same time contributing to economic growth. The food and agriculture sector has the primary role in feeding people well by increasing availability, affordability, and consumption of diverse, safe, nutritious foods and diets, aligned with dietary recommendations and environmental sustainability. Applying these principles helps strengthen resilience and contributes to sustainable development.
However, hunger, malnutrition, and poor health are widespread and stubborn development challenges. Agriculture has made remarkable advances in the past decades, but progress in improving the nutrition and health of poor farmers and consumers in developing countries is lagging behind. For instance, in Zambia, 45% children under five years old – almost one million -- are stunted. ‘Stunting’ is a technical term used by nutrition and public health specialists that refers to low height for age – a key indicator of child health. This is a result of chronic malnutrition, which is usually caused by the lack of good-quality food and poor access to health care particularly in the 1,000-day window between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday.
Agricultural programmes and investments can strengthen impact on nutrition if they:
- incorporate explicit nutrition objectives and indicators into their design, and track and mitigate potential harms, while seeking synergies with economic, social and environmental objectives.
- assess the context at the local level, to design appropriate activities to address the types and causes of malnutrition, including chronic or acute under-nutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and obesity and chronic disease. Context assessment can include potential food resources, agro-ecology, seasonality of production and income, access to productive resources such as land, market opportunities and infrastructure, gender dynamics and roles, opportunities for collaboration with other sectors or programs, and local priorities.
- target the vulnerable and improve equity through participation, access to resources, and decent employment. Vulnerable groups include smallholders, women, youth, the landless, urban dwellers, the unemployed.
- collaborate and coordinate with other sectors (health, environment, social protection, labor, water and sanitation, education, energy) and programs, through joint strategies with common goals, to address concurrently the multiple underlying causes of malnutrition.
- maintain or improve the natural resource base (water, soil, air, climate, biodiversity), critical to the livelihoods and resilience of vulnerable farmers and to sustainable food and nutrition security for all. Manage water resources in particular to reduce vector-borne illness and to ensure sustainable, safe household water sources.
- empower women by ensuring access to productive resources, income opportunities, extension services and information, credit, labor and time-saving technologies (including energy and water services), and supporting their voice in household and farming decisions. Equitable opportunities to earn and learn should be compatible with safe pregnancy and young child feeding.
- facilitate production diversification, and increase production of nutrient-dense crops and small-scale livestock (for example, horticultural products, legumes, livestock and fish at a small scale, underutilized crops, and bio-fortified crops). Diversified production systems are important to vulnerable producers to enable resilience to climate and price shocks, more diverse food consumption, reduction of seasonal food and income fluctuations, and greater and more gender-equitable income generation.
- improve processing, storage and preservation to retain nutritional value, shelf-life, and food safety, to reduce seasonality of food insecurity and post-harvest losses, and to make healthy foods convenient to prepare.
- expand markets and market access for vulnerable groups, particularly for marketing nutritious foods or products vulnerable groups have a comparative advantage in producing. This can include innovative promotion (such as marketing based on nutrient content), value addition, access to price information, and farmer associations.
- incorporate nutrition promotion and education around food and sustainable food systems that builds on existing local knowledge, attitudes and practices. Nutrition knowledge can enhance the impact of production and income in rural households, especially important for women and young children, and can increase demand for nutritious foods in the general population.
Most importantly, increasing women’s participation in agriculture and related activities is of great significance for improving nutrition and reducing hunger worldwide. Women play a vital role in advancing agricultural development and food security. They participate in many aspects of rural life – in paid employment, trade and marketing, as well as many unpaid activities, such as tending to crops and animals, collecting water and wood for fuel, and caring for family members. Women also manage household consumption and food preparation. But women face many constraints in the multiple activities they pursue – less land ownership, access to credit, extension and other services, and ability to hire labor. Too often, these constraints as well as women’s current and potential contributions to agricultural production go unrecognized.
“A farm laborer carries her child as she tends to tobacco crops”
Increasing opportunities for women can have a powerful impact on productivity and agriculture-led growth. Women are just as efficient agricultural producers as men and can achieve similar yields when given equal access to resources, including training and services. For example, in Kenya, researchers found that women could increase their crop yields by approximately 20 percent if given the same access to the same resources as men. In Burkina Faso, it has been estimated that overall household production could increase by about six percent by more equitably distributing fertilizer and labor between male and female-farmed plots. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. This increase could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 – 4 percent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent, up to 150 million people.
“Women selling vegetables”
When women’s productivity and incomes increase, the benefits amplify across families and generations. Women tend to devote a larger fraction of their income to their children’s health and nutrition, laying the foundation for their children’s lifelong cognitive and physical development.6 In Nepal, for example, the children of women who own land are twice as likely to be adequately nourished than children in households where women work on family land they do not own or children growing up in landless households. Mothers who own land are better able to provide more nutritious food to their children and ensure their health and wellbeing.
Strengthening women’s power, influence, and decision-making roles within the family and community can be an effective strategy to improve their consumption of nutritious foods and their health. In many parts of the world, women are more likely than men to spend the income they control on food, health care, and education for their children. Thus, increasing women’s access to land, ability to make decisions about land use, and control of physical and financial assets will not only increase agricultural production, but also improve child health and nutrition. Empowering women to promote healthy, diverse diets through the production and consumption of nutrient-rich crops using local food systems is critical for ensuring food and nutrition security. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent.
Incorporating gender-sensitive nutrition components into policies and programs can avoid unintended gender impacts that undercut the effectiveness of these initiatives. In addition to providing women and girls with more opportunities to participate, gender-sensitive nutrition programs measure the impact of planned activities on women and men. Efforts to improve women’s nutritional status will be most effective if conducted in conjunction with programs that aim to improve the status of women and reduce gender inequalities.
While planning or evaluating nutrition interventions, it is important to understand the social and gender dynamics that could help or hinder their effectiveness. A gender analysis will help answer questions such as:
- What are the demographics of the affected group, disaggregated by sex and age?
- What decisions do women and men make that affect family nutrition?
- Who makes the decisions about breastfeeding - whether or not to breastfeed, when to start, how long to continue? This could be a mother herself, but might be her mother-in-law or husband.
Lastly, integrated agriculture and nutrition programs have great potential to improve nutrition outcomes, but evidence so far is scarce due to weaknesses in program targeting, design and implementation and equally importantly, poor evaluation designs. Using an agricultural platform to improve nutrition is also useful in sustainable development initiatives.