Agriculture – in addition to generating produce – is a source of income for many people worldwide. Full inclusion of nutrition in specifically targeted agricultural policies would ensure a greater role for agriculture in combating malnutrition.
Twenty-two years after the first International Conference on Nutrition (ICN1), some 2,200 participants at ICN2 underlined the progress that has been achieved since then, with the proportion of undernourished people having declined by around 20%. Major challenges remain, however, including the new paradox known as the 'double burden', whereby malnutrition and overnutrition coexist.
The international community is increasingly mobilised in favour of nutrition. In 2013, the European Commission made nutrition a development objective and called for joint action, while pledging €3.1 billion in favour of nutrition- sensitive agriculture. These funds are earmarked mainly for food security and agricultural interventions. At ICN2, the EU and three international institutions, including CTA, also announced a collaboration to promote agriculture geared towards ensuring better nutrition.
Increasing agricultural production and productivity to meet the needs of a growing population is essential, and the avowed aim of all governments. The agricultural sector has faced increased pressure in recent years to be nutrition sensitive; boosting production is no longer automatically synonymous with reducing malnutrition. For instance, in the Sikasso region of Mali, malnutrition is chronic among young children despite a high agricultural production rate. Carbohydrate-rich, micronutrient-poor cereals account for most of people's caloric intake. And this is not an isolated example.
Increased production should contribute to the food and nutritional security of the population and one way to achieve this is to diversify agricultural production towards horticulture, legume crops, dairy products, fish, poultry and livestock. Crop diversification can also enhance the soil structure and fertility, while facilitating the introduction of new and more sustainable farming practices and reducing risks for farmers, thus potentially improving their income.
Species that are under-exploited, forgotten or even threatened by climate change, deforestation and bush fires abound in the natural environment. Around 400 species of traditional vegetables and leafy vegetables exist in Africa, some of which have a high yet often unrecognised nutritional value. These traditional vegetables could be tapped to help overcome nutrient deficiencies. Moringa leaves, for example, can be dried, ground and added to sauces to take advantage of their high vitamin, mineral and protein content. Other examples include African locust beans and baobab. New Zealand spinach, grown in the Pacific Islands, has a high nutrient content, while breadfruit, which has been domesticated in Pacific and Caribbean countries, is calorie-rich and contains vitamins A, B and C, phosphorus and iron.
Promotion and awareness campaigns have led to a boom in the consumption of traditional vegetables in recent years. In Tanzania, it is estimated that traditional vegetables account for 70% of all vegetables cultivated and marketed in rural and peri-urban areas, while in Kenya there was a 135% market growth rate for these vegetables between 2002 and 2006. Focusing on vegetables, traditional or not, would help to curb obesity in the Pacific Islands and the West Indies, where high calorie/low nutrient processed foods are widely consumed.
The biofortification of staple foods could provide a way to overcome nutritional deficiencies. Substantial research is underway to increase the nutrient content of local cereal and legume varieties. HarvestPlus – a global alliance that aims to reduce micronutrient deficiencies – along with 60 partners worldwide, is developing biofortified crops. Some 10 million people in rural areas currently grow and eat biofortified foods, thus boosting their nutritional status, according to HarvestPlus. The case of beta-carotene-rich orange fleshed sweet potato is a prime example of this trend. Already cultivated in eight African countries, studies have confirmed its substantial nutritional value. High yielding iron-rich beans have been introduced in DRC, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda is promoting beta-carotene enriched cassava. Banana, wheat, maize and rice are also being biofortified.
For smallholders, biofortification requires an initial investment in new seeds, which must be adapted to local conditions and profitable; ongoing costs must also remain reasonable. Farmers can then preserve the seeds and share them with other members of their community. Biofortification is focused on staple food crops that are used to prepare familiar foods, but problems of community acceptance of these varieties may arise. Nutrients supplemented via biofortification should also be preserved during processing and preparation. Finally, the technologies used to create new varieties may sometimes involve GMOs, raising the issue of seed ownership and capacity building for local research organisations.
Small and large farmers have to cope with dietary transitions that arise as a result of urbanisation and lifestyle changes. That may simply involve facilitating urban people's access to fresh fruit and vegetables, as proposed by the 'Green Collar Jobs' project in Nigeria (see field report in Spore N° 176), to ensure a more direct link between farmers and the market. Processing and packaging are other options. These are promoted by FasoPro, a company that has been marketing bags of fresh, protein, iron- and omega 3-rich shea caterpillars since 2014 to help overcome malnutrition. Sterilised caterpillars are highly appreciated in Burkina Faso and may be consumed year round. Foods can also be enriched during processing. Many countries, especially in the ECOWAS region, now oblige manufacturers to fortify flour with folic acid or to enrich refined vegetable oil with vitamin A.
The nutritional value of foods should also be preserved while limiting waste throughout the value chain. A lack of storage and refrigeration facilities, as well as transport infrastructure, is widely responsible for net losses of many foods, including vegetables, fruits and fish.
Food insecurity and nutrient deficiency mainly affect developing countries. Targeting the poorest and most vulnerable people is an integral part of the fight against malnutrition. Adopting a gender policy that fosters the empowerment of women in the agricultural sector is also beneficial. This has an impact on agricultural productivity but also on households, in terms of food, education and children's health. Awareness campaigns – via local radio programmes, fairs and schools, for example – are crucial in this regard.
Many initiatives target the most vulnerable people at individual and community levels. In Rwanda, for example, the 'One Cow Per Poor Family' programme, whereby a cow is given to poor or vulnerable families that live off less than 0.7 ha of land, has already benefitted over 100,000 households. At the community level, the increase in home gardens throughout Africa has enhanced the nutritional capacity of families through the harvesting of fruits and vegetables from these gardens. This produce is grown for self-consumption but can also be marketed, thus generating extra income for households (see our field report on Niger). School feeding programmes are another example. These are mainly implemented by the World Food Programme to ensure that school children get a meal every day, while also increasing awareness on nutrition, especially through the creation of vegetable gardens in schools. Whenever possible, these programmes are also based on local production, thus improving the economic situation for smallholders and the community overall.
Nutrition is still only barely (or not at all) taken into account in agricultural policies, which are focused more on production and productivity. This is one of the conclusions of an assessment by Save the Children of agricultural policies in 15 African countries and of the plans of 18 African countries under the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). Nine of the latter 18 countries explicitly specified that improving nutrition was one of their goals, but few of them actually incorporate targeted objectives in their policies, accompanied by nutritional and food consumption indicators. Burundi and Ethiopia have nevertheless indicated that stunted growth in children should be reduced by 3%. Setting targeted objectives can help in developing monitoring indicators and assessing the results, while ensuring accountability.
In addition, people working in the agricultural sector should be trained on nutrition issues. In Burkina Faso, nutrition courses are included in national agronomy training programmes, and in Kenya, a domestic economy section was created within the Ministry of Agriculture, which is responsible for implementing the ministry's nutrition mandate.
The international community is increasingly aware of the importance of nutrition and agrees that it should be dealt with in a multi-sectoral manner, through a coordinated, long-term approach. Ministries of agriculture should play a full role in developing gateways with other ministries, while participating in inter-sectoral coordination structures, as well as developing and integrating nutritional indicators in their public policies.
ICN2 endorsed the Rome Declaration on Nutrition, which includes 60 measures to combat all forms of malnutrition. Following on from the conference, FAO created a special trust fund in favour of nutrition and has incorporated nutrition as a cross-cutting theme in the organisation's revised strategic framework. Family farms seem to be the ideal intermediaries for disseminating the nutrition-sensitive agriculture concept, while sustainably taking full advantage of high biodiversity. Clearly, the family farming and nutrition agendas overlap.
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