Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

This member contributed to:

    • I want to share some points that are relevant to this discussion from a new paper by Hivos and IIED entitled The spice of life: the fundamental role of diversity on the farm and on the plate (, which focuses on agricultural biodiversity and diverse, high quality diets.

      Maintaining agricultural biodiversity is vital in order to meet food and nutrition security and to cope with the challenge of climate change. Improving and diversifying diets is essential to human health and to limiting the spread of non-communicable diseases. Reviving and maintaining diversity on the farm and on the plate requires action on multiple fronts and at multiple scales. At a macro level, promoting diversity entails a shift from industrial agriculture – which relies on monocultures and a small number of crops, crop varieties and animal breeds – to diversified sustainable farming systems. At a national and local scale, it entails raising awareness and stimulating demand for diverse and healthy foods, as markets for diverse crops and animal products need to be supported and expanded. Meanwhile, policies, subsidies, research and extension programmes need to be aligned to support diverse food production and consumption. Finally, the cultural underpinnings of diverse food systems – which are also under threat worldwide – need to be protected and strengthened.

      Markets have an important role to play in fostering greater diversity of production and consumption. In developing countries, informal markets are particularly important, and often do a better job than formal markets of linking diverse, affordable foods with consumers. Such markets should be nurtured, to support and improve their operation, rather than trying to stamp them out, as governments often unsuccessfully attempt to do. Barter markets can also provide an important mechanism for poor groups to access diverse nutrients and sustain agrobiodiversity. For instance, a barter market controlled by indigenous women in the Lares area of Cusco province in Peru enables highland and lowland products to be exchanged, enhancing the nutritional security and agrobiodiversity of both regions.

      Gastronomic movements around the world have played an increasingly important role in promoting the revival and maintenance of traditional crops and ingredients. For instance, in Bolivia, this has created a small but significant demand for traditional products by chefs, who are working directly with local producers to ensure sustainable processes for the production of local Andean crops. One of the key organisations involved in the Bolivian gastronomic movement is MIGA (Movement of Gastronomic and Food Integration of Bolivia). Since 2012, MIGA has brought together different key actors in the gastronomic food system to enhance the value of Bolivian culinary heritage and promote sustainable economic, social, cultural and environmental processes. MIGA seeks to promote the value of biodiversity represented in local and native products, preserving traditional knowledge, seasonality, as well as traditional ways of consumption.

      Carefully targeted procurement programmes (e.g. in schools, university, hospital kitchens and prisons) can be another powerful lever to improve diets and create demand for a more diverse array of crops. In fact, procurement is one of the few mechanisms that can stimulate demand and supply for more diverse, healthy foods in a direct way and at scale. School feeding programmes with the aim of improving children’s nutrition are a good illustration of public procurement. Depending on how such programmes are designed, they can also promote local sourcing and a diversity of foods, thereby creating demand for local crop varieties.

      India has the largest school lunch programme in the world, serving 120 million of the country’s poorest children. Biodiversity International, the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation and other organisations have promoted the conservation and use of millets, including in school lunch programmes. The substitution of millets for white rice in school lunches in 12 districts of Central and South India led to a 37% increase in haemoglobin levels in children over a three-month period.

    • Proponent

      Seth Cook, IIED;

      Chris Henderson, Practical Action UK

      Menila Kharel, Practical Action Nepal

      Afsari Begum, Practical Bangladesh

      Abdur Rob, Practical Bangladesh

      Sujan Piya, Practical Action Nepal

      Main responsible entity

      Practical Action, IIED



      Funding source



      Bangladesh and Nepal


      According to the FAO, one third of the world’s soils are moderately to severely degraded. Unsustainable farming practices can lead to a decline in soil organic matter, and a change in soil structure that reduces water retention and microbial activity. These effects in turn diminish agriculture’s ability to withstand drought and climate change, and the soil’s ability to provide nutrients to plants. They also contribute to pollution and soil erosion.

      One solution to this problem is to improve soil fertility through greater applications of compost, manure and other organic fertilizers. However, organic matter in rural areas of South Asia is often in short supply. Mechanisation has replaced draught animals with tractors, livestock rearing is in decline and crop and animal residues tend to be mostly used for fuel and fodder rather than returned to the soil. Meanwhile, government agricultural policies heavily favor chemical fertilizer over organic fertilizer. As a result of all these trends, not enough organic matter is making it back to the fields to sustain healthy soils.

      In light of the organic matter shortages in rural areas, making use of urban organic waste is an attractive option, as it can address several problems at once. The production of urban organic waste in South Asian countries has grown significantly in tandem with urbanisation and economic development. In fact, the management of municipal solid wastes remains one of the most neglected areas of urban development in many developing countries. In Bangladesh, municipalities generate approximately 13,000 tons of waste a day and spend about 10-15 per cent of their budget on solid waste management. Despite such heavy expenditures, waste continues to pose a threat to public health and environmental quality in general.

      Some 60-70 per cent of waste produced in urban areas in Bangladesh is organic, while the rest is inorganic. While markets (mostly informal) exist for inorganic waste, this is not the case for organic waste. Considering the large amounts of organic waste that are generated, there is clear potential to use these materials for productive purposes, such as energy generation or for reuse and recycling. Organic waste can be composted and turned into fertilisers for agricultural production, and can help to compensate for shortages of organic materials in rural areas. The conversion of urban organic waste into fertilizer is one of the strategies that is being used to address problems of soil fertility in rural areas of Bangladesh and Nepal.


      To improve soil fertility in Bangladesh and Nepal through collaboration and a system facilitation approach to the markets and mindsets of actors relevant to organic fertilizer and compost value chains.

      Key characteristics of the experience/process

      Greater use of organic fertilizer and/or other methods of improving soil fertility require coordinated action at many levels. Collaboration can address issues in the organic fertilizer sub-sector and achieve actions beyond the reach of individual actors or interventions. In particular, collaboration is needed:

      • with farmers and their communities to understand their constraints and build capacity to produce their own compost

      • with policymakers to ensure an enabling environment for investors, manufacturers, traders and farmers

      • with investors and manufacturers to develop the supply side of the sub-sector, including agro-dealers and providers of knowledge and advice.

      With this need in mind, the action research helped to establish collaborative mechanisms to drive innovation and coordinated action in both countries. These collaborative mechanisms involved a series of multi-stakeholder platforms combined with action planning and implementation of a common agenda. Thus they were far more than just a discussion platform, instead requiring sustained engagement by key partners and stakeholders.

      Key actors involved and their role

      Practical Action Bangladesh – implementation role

      Practical Action Nepal – implementation role

      Practical Action UK – advisory role

      International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) – advisory role and lead on publications

      Key changes observed with regards to food security and nutrition and sustainable agriculture and food systems

      In Bangladesh, consumers are demanding safe food and this demand is creating opportunities for producers and marketers alike. One of the key changes we observed is a growing awareness by farmers of the negative impacts of excessive chemical fertilizer and pesticide applications. Most farmers said that they are using organic fertilizer and compost on lands growing food for own consumption. However, due to limited supplies of organic fertilizer, they are not able to do the same for their commercial crops.

      At the same time, policy makers are increasingly cognizant of the need for changes in existing policies to create an enabling environment for organic fertilizer value chains. This includes the need to liberalize the licensing policy and remove requirements for organic fertilizer producers to have their own laboratory for testing samples. Meanwhile, collaborative mechanisms bringing together farmers, government officials, NGOs and the private sector have become self-perpetuating.

      In Nepal, the Soil Management Directorate of the Department of Agriculture has committed to leading the collaborative mechanism and working with other stakeholders to strengthen organic fertilizer value chains. The country’s long term Agriculture Development Strategy has also highlighted the need for improving soil fertility through organic matter. Upscaling the use of organic fertilizer can contribute to reversing soil fertility decline and also has potential to increase the productivity of Nepal’s agriculture, which is the lowest in South Asia.

      Challenges faced

      Work on organic fertilizer value chains is still at an early stage in Bangladesh and Nepal, and has encountered significant obstacles. The policy environment and input distribution system in both countries still heavily favours chemical fertilizer over organic fertilizer. It has also been difficult to convince farmers to use balanced applications of chemical and organic fertilizers.

      Lessons/Key messages

      To break the vicious cycle whereby intensive agriculture in South Asia depletes soil organic matter and increases vulnerability to drought, an integrated approach is required which balances applications of organic and chemical fertilizers and promotes agronomic practices that enhance soil fertility. Research is needed to develop cost-effective agronomic and market-based strategies adapted to the wide range of circumstances and kinds of farmers. Ensuring that large enough quantities of organic matter are returned to soils will require policies that raise awareness of soil fertility problems, encourage and support organic matter value chains, simplify licensing procedures and unrealistic standards, build capacity among companies, secure sufficient quantities of raw materials from multiple sources, and stimulate demand.

      One of the key lessons of this case study is that such value chains for commodities such as organic fertilizer do not simply materialise by themselves. They need to be nurtured over time, and require action by multiple stakeholders. This includes the private sector, NGOs, Government agencies and farmers. Knowledgeable and well-respected civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in facilitating collaborative mechanisms between different actors and building momentum.