Leveraging agriculture for nutrition

Dhaka,  Fri,  18 August 2017
Published : 25 Mar 2016, 23:09:53
Views & Opinion

Leveraging agriculture for nutrition

Abdul Bayes

"The agriculture sector and wider agri-food system are considered to be central to sustained progress in reducing under-nutrition and yet not enough is known about how to unleash this potential", argued some eminent economists from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Stuart Gillespie, Mara van den Bold, Judith Hodge and Anna Herforth, for example, recently undertook some case studies to establish their points of how agriculture could become nerve-centre for nutrition - not by producing food alone but also by promoting nutrition-sensitive food.  Possibly we can hardly contest their views since, in many cases, malnutrition accompanies massive food production. The Asian enigma, embracing surplus food and under-nutrition, is alleged to have gripped this region and we need to look into the matter more seriously than before. It is in this context that we will draw upon their research - occasionally paraphrased - done in some Asian and African countries to get insights.

Overall, the researchers found that the notion of nutrition itself differed significantly among stakeholders. Some considered nutrition outcomes to refer to child growth or micronutrient status, while others perceived improved food access and diets to be primary nutrition outcomes. Many stakeholders are of the view that stunting and child nutrition are primarily health issues under the purview of the Ministry of Health, not directly affected by agriculture. Take the following observation:

"As one interviewee stated, nutrition is perceived to be a concept outside agriculture and its (agriculture's) indicators can't check for reductions in stunting, rather they will check on number of households without food or with food diversification. In all countries, we found a common perception that as agriculture provides food and income, it is not only relevant for nutrition, but potentially sufficient for good nutrition. In three South Asian countries, nearly two-thirds of interviewees perceived agriculture as mainly affecting nutrition through the production (and hence increased availability) of food. Agriculture was also identified as a key source of income for producers and agricultural workers. The impact of agricultural policies on prices was highlighted, both for farmers' income as well as for improving consumers' purchasing power and potentially food consumption. Only 1 in 5 South Asian respondents mentioned other pathways through which agriculture can impact nutrition, such as through women's empowerment and/or control over resources. In India, the persistence of high malnutrition rates - despite economic growth and investments in the agricultural sector, and the country's achievements in agricultural production - is finally allowing more space for nutrition in policy discussions."

In Bangladesh, despite the tendency (as reported by several respondents) to focus primarily on rice and wheat production, the government and several other organisations have now started to recognise the importance of diversifying diets and making agriculture more nutrition-sensitive although this agenda still seems to be driven by development partners. A smaller number of interviewees emphasised that nutrition is gaining prominence.

Women's empowerment in agriculture was discussed in most countries though to a much lesser extent than food production. Empowering and targeting women will have an effect on the nutritional status of children. When women control resources, they are more likely to use it for family consumption and that will improve the nutritional outcomes. Apart from income, empowerment was discussed in terms of promoting adoption of labour-saving technologies and more equitable labour-sharing. The notion that agriculture as a major employer of poor rural women (many of whom are mothers of young children) generates other non-food pathways to nutrition is not commonly understood among, or highlighted by, stakeholders in both regions. One interviewee in Pakistan suggested that most aspects of the food system are controlled by men, which is why nutrition does not receive priority (men understand money; women understand nutrition), and that agricultural extension systems are heavily dominated by men, compromising important interactions with women around agriculture and nutrition.

Many respondents discussed income generation being seen as a bona fide pathway to improved nutrition. At the same time, market orientation was often discussed as almost an either/or choice with increasing production of nutrient-rich foods. Agricultural policies were thought to prioritise market access, value addition and commercialisation of agriculture.

Perceptions of the kind of evidence available and needed fell into two types: experimental research evidence, and basic data showing evidence of problems. On the research side, some responses pointed to a desire to identify a universal single mechanism on how agriculture affects nutrition and to be able to predict percentage point reductions in stunting from certain actions. This viewpoint, emphasised by health sector respondents in eastern Africa, is informed by direct interventions that have a predictable, universal biological effect.

There was a desire to disentangle and identify the effects of food production/diversification, income generation, and women's empowerment: "We don't know exactly which one affects. Is it the income, the diversity, the women empowerment or the value chain that affects nutritional outcomes? We don't have much evidence (NGO representative, Ethiopia)."

On the other hand, many stakeholders recognised context dependence, for example, calling for production choices based on nutritional deficiencies in a given area. For filling this gap one may may  draw upon evidence from a set of case studies in South Asia (India, Bangladesh and Pakistan) and eastern Africa (Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya). In synthesising results across countries, while recognising important nuance and detail, the researchers conclude by highlighting the following four key issues to be addressed:

First, it is to improve knowledge and perception of under-nutrition and its links to agriculture, on the part of agricultural policymakers and programme managers. Second, system-wide incentives are to be generated for decisions and actions to become more pro-nutrition. Third, transparent systems of accountability have to be developed for nutrition relevant action throughout the agriculture sector, through linking timely and actionable data and evidence with incentives. And fourth, leadership and capacities at different levels have to be cultivated and strengthened, underpinned by adequate financing.

Abdul Bayes is a Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. abdulbayes@yahoo.com


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