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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

Integration of Nutrition into Agricultural Education

The purpose of this note is to ascertain whether it is necessary to integrate nutrition into agricultural education, and if so, to explore how may one achieve that objective. I shall use a holistic approach, but it will be within the framework imposed by the logic of relevance to the two areas the current discussion specifies.

Let me begin by asking the question, how may one justify agricultural education? Is it because agricultural education enables those who plan and administer agricultural activities perform their work more effectively? Or is it because it enables those who actually engage in agriculture to produce more, and hence earn more?

If one should answer ’yes’ to those two questions as one generally does, it inevitably entails that agricultural activities are undertaken for the sole purpose of earning a profit. Other things being equal, this in turn, entails that agricultural production is only governed by the demand for produce at local, regional or global levels.

This may look innocuous, and indeed in the opinion of many, praiseworthy. However, in real life where many a resounding theory is as tangible as a fata morgana, belief in it is directly responsible for malnutrition and/or inappropriate nutrition among the people.

In the 1980ies, increased peanut production for export in West Africa greatly diminshed its availability to the local people, for whom it had been a major source of protein for generations. This led to wide-spread protein defficiency especially among children, which is well-documented. Likewise, in many Asian and South American countries, undue emphasis on cash crops rather than on the food crops and livestock has led to a similar result, or to the rising cost of wholesome food. Eg. Tea, coffee, cocoa, etc, are some of such crops.

I use the term ’wholesome food’ advisedly. It may be true  that growing cash-crops may enable a farmer to earn more, but the question is whether an appropriate diet would be available to one at an affordable cost when farmers  will limit themselves to grow what  will enable them to earn most?

Obviously, this is impossible. And if one wishes to eat appropriately, a considerable portion of a cash-crop grower’s profits would have to be spent on food. Moreover, it has the same insidious impact on the eating habits of everybody in a given locality.

Now the dietry stage is set for the entrance of Iago! It proclaims in colourful photos, catchy tunes, and sonorous monosyllables that it is ’cool’ and modern to consume some brand of industrial  feed or drink just as the celebrity X or Y does. What’s more, the stuff is comparatively cheap not only with reference to price, but also nutritive content, and taste.

Everyewhere in the world, obesity and malnutrition has become a serious threat to public health, and human well-being. This is in part, due to current public ignorance of nutrition, and its failure to understand that one’s intake of food ought to be commensurable with one’s actual nutritional needs and never with current fashion.

I think now it becomes clear that unless agriculture of a community is guided by its actual nutritional needs, it would be impossible to avoid either malnutrition or its inappropriate counterpart. When this has been done, a community may employ its surplus  agricultural capacity on suitable cash-crops, for it would be strange to give priority to the latter in order to import the former.

Thus, integration of nutrition into agriculture is fully justified, because it is the sole justifiable scientific frame of reference within which a community could engage in agriculture to its real benefit.

I shall next take up the question of integration. It is possible to distinguish between two aspects of nutrition one needs to integrate into agricultural education. Even though nutrition is one of our fundamental needs, what is justifiably constitutive of it and how it is satisfied, varies according to age, activity level, and climatic conditions.

For instance, growing children have a greater need for proteins and some minerals than an average grown-up. Those who dwell in colder climes may require more carbohydrates and fats than those who  live in tropics. A hard-working lumber-jack in a Canadian forest needs many more Kilo Joules a day than say, a politician.

Meanwhile, agriculture has been with us for several millenia, and the agricultural communities have developed the art with reference to their peculiar climatic and geographic conditions so that they may meet their nutritional needs as well as possible. After many generations, the food culture of a community begins to instantiate how its members may best satisfy their nutritional needs.

Unfortunately, this very important aspect of a community’s food culture is often neglected by nutritionists and in agricultural education.  I can quote some instances where communities gave up some parts of their food culture for invalid reasons,  and their substitution by foreign eating habits necessitated growing inappropriate crops and/or raising inappropriate live stock. Not only were those more very expensive to produce, but were also sometimes the cause of obesity. Eg. Supplanting rice with wheat, depreciation of yams, taro and similar root crops, introduction of sheep and cattle as a source of protein to Andean hill farms.

Therefore, I think agricultural education ought to be revised so that it does emphasise the importance of the traditional crops and live stock  of a given area, and strive to improve and enhance them. Of course, this does not rule out introduction of new crops or even live stock, but that must be done with a great deal of caution.

It is crucial that we change the current basic tenet of agricultural education,  viz. Enabling those who are engaged in it to make the largest possible gain, into more reasonable one. That is, agricultural education should be concerned with enabling those who are engaged in it to make an reasonable gain by producing appropriate foods required to adequately meet the real nutritional needs of a community.

Improvement of crops and live stock through research etc., is one of the important means of ensuring that one may make a reasonable gain by engaging in agriculture.

Sound eating and drinking habits  are not givens, and they have to be acquired by learning.  Their soundness depends on whether those habits are adequate to meet one’s nutritional needs. Now, the producers of food and drink are only a convenient sub-set of consumers of those items.

Hence, nutrition should be an integral component of school education for all, and at a more comprehensive level in agricultural education,  for it provides the sole justifiable frame of reference that could guide agriculture as an endeavour that benefits all.

Best wishes!

Lal Manavado.