It’s estimated that by 2050 the world’s population will reach nine billion people; all will need nutritious diets in order to live healthy and productive lives. Yet, despite the intrinsic relationship between the food we eat and the food we grow, the nutrition and agriculture sectors are still not working together closely enough. Indeed, since the 1980s most of the major agriculture and food security programmes have shown limited interest in nutrition while the nutrition sector has been just as single-minded, focusing primarily on health focused interventions.
This needs to change if we are to meet the challenge of poor nutrition. The world produces enough for everyone to enjoy a healthy diet. Yet, over 3 million children under five will die this year as a result of malnutrition while 1.3 billion of us are now classified as overweight or obese.
Simply increasing the amount of food we grow will not solve this crisis. The high rates of malnutrition among farming communities is a stark reminder that the link between growing food and consuming a healthy diet is broken. This disconnect means that while agricultural productivity is addressed through partnerships like G-8’s New Alliance for Food Security & Nutrition and Grow Africa, malnutrition continues to threaten the long-term prospects of the rural communities they seek to empower.
We need a clear plan of action to ensure that the money spent on agriculture results in better nutrition outcomes. In the words of Harvest Plus’ Howarth Bouis, agriculture must become ‘nutrition-smart’. This means optimizing basic food systems so that we are sustainably producing the greatest amount of nutrients per square foot. In the face of population growth, urbanisation and climate change, this task becomes ever more urgent.
There is no reason why we can’t develop complementary approaches that integrate what works for agriculture and nutrition. But, as with all nutrition interventions, there is no single sector that can deliver the solution. The private sector – including smallholder farmers, local millers, and small and medium sized businesses – civil society, the UN system, and local and national governments of both developed and developing world countries, must come out of their silos and work together if we are to integrate agriculture and nutrition for positive outcomes.
At a recent event held at the World Food Program HQ, GAIN brought these stakeholders together to ask where the best opportunities are to link agriculture and nutrition. A recurring message was the need to need to ‘bridge the gaps’ – making markets work by bringing food producers and consumers closer together; guiding agricultural investments so that they benefit rural communities and produce healthier food; and building an integrated research agenda that is supported by the nutrition and agriculture sectors. Here are three ways that we can make agriculture and nutrition work better together:
1. Building demand for nutritious foods: We need to make markets work better – for consumers who are unable to access affordable, healthy foods, and for producers who need to know that there is a demand for nutritious products. GAIN’s Marketplace for Nutritious Foods is helping to bring new products to market by developing a better understanding of what motivates purchasing decisions, and supporting local entrepreneurship and experimentation. Examples include the sale of protein-rich chicken offal in small, affordable quantities; pasteurised milk dispensers that allow customers to take just what they can afford; and drying technologies that keep fruit and vegetables fresher for longer. We need to build this market and we need to build demand.
2. Piggybacking nutrition onto agricultural investments: The agricultural system is already reaching rural populations, with inputs like seeds, fertilizers and training. We should be using these value chains to improve the health of rural workers and to support farmers to grow and sell more nutritious crops. In Tanzania, the Sun Business Network brought together small and medium businesses to develop a Roadmap for agricultural investments that support rural communities and encourage the growing of nutritious crops. Another innovative project in Nigeria is using e-wallets to allow farmers to purchase low-cost micronutrient powders alongside fertilisers.
3. Building the evidence base: Innovative new technologies such as biofortification to breed higher levels of micronutrients into staple foods like sweet potatoes or maize, and new techniques to fortify staple foods such as soaking rice with zinc are being developed and piloted. However, more needs to be done to build the evidence base before investment will flow. We need more formative research to build a clear picture of the nutrition status of populations and the multiple barriers they face to accessing diverse diets. We need to be building more evaluations and making sure we link nutrition and agriculture programmes together to get better outcomes.
In November 2014 GAIN will launch the first in a series of Snap Shot Reports, highlighting some of the exciting things we are seeing on the ground where nutrition is being woven into the agricultural value chain. Some of these stories illustrate bold and long-standing efforts to diversify and enrich the diet. Others are still in the exploratory stages. Some are poised to go to scale; others are just getting off the ground.
The food system can be fixed. But to be successful, we have to turn the clock back 30 years to when nutrition was a key part of agriculture. Developing programmes that deliver nutrition alongside agricultural inputs and building markets for nutritious foods that reach the most vulnerable are a good start. That we now have common agreement on the nutrition targets we need in the post-2015 development goals, will help us to scale these programmes up for maximum impact. It’s only by consolidating efforts, setting common goals, pooling resources and sharing experiences that we can make agriculture and nutrition work better together.
From Seed to Stomach: tackling malnutrition through cooperation How do we build demand for more nutritious food? Can we insert nutrition along the agricultural value chain?
These questions are considered in a video produced by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, which focuses on achieving closer cooperation between agriculture and nutrition. The short film features contributions from Marc Van Ameringen, Executive Director, GAIN; Dr Kanayo Nwanze, President, IFAD; Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, World Food Programme; Anna Lartey, President, FAO; Shawn K. Baker, Director of Nutrition, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Jay Naidoo, GAIN Board Chairman.