By Shenggen Fan, Sivan Yosef, and Rajul Pandya-Lorch
This blog post is the third in a 3-part series accompanying the release of the book Agriculture for Improved Nutrition: Seizing the Momentum, co-edited by Shenggen Fan, Sivan Yosef, and Rajul Pandya-Lorch (co-published by CABI Publishing and IFPRI). The book was launched at a Feb. 28 event at IFPRI headquarters in Washington.
At times, engaging the agriculture sector to improve nutrition seems like an uphill battle. In many countries, agricultural policies tend to favor staple foods like wheat and rice, because these crops have traditionally staved off hunger and famine. Government officials overseeing agriculture and nutrition often work in isolation, with their funding, capacities, and even technical languages obstacles to close collaboration. Against this backdrop, it can be daunting for policymakers to contemplate formulating nutrition-driven agriculture policies and strategies that can be implemented at the national scale.
Thankfully, policymakers do not have to start from scratch. Several countries around the world have already had early successes in reorienting their agricultural systems to improve nutrition, and their experiences can inform similar policies in neighboring countries and regions seeking to embark on their own agriculture-nutrition journeys.
For many years, Ethiopia addressed its nutrition challenges through ad-hoc interventions mainly implemented during emergencies, such as providing food aid during droughts. Nutrition was also thus considered an issue for the health sector. However, beginning in the early 2000s, surveys showed that chronic undernutrition persisted even when there were crop surpluses, meaning that malnutrition could not be eradicated by simply boosting food production. This realization prompted the government to develop Ethiopia’s first National Nutrition Strategy (2008) and the National Nutrition Programme (2008-2013), which promoted a preventative, systematic, and multi-sectoral approach to addressing malnutrition. Many interventions were still led by the health sector, but there were now modest links with other sectors, including water and sanitation, education, and agriculture.
Subsequent National Nutrition Programs have become even more multi-sectoral, calling upon the agriculture sector to increase the production and consumption of nutritious foods. Various other mechanisms are now in place to leverage agriculture for nutrition. These include the Seqota Declaration, Agriculture Growth Programme, Scaling Up Nutrition movement, the Sustainable Undernutrition Reduction (SURE) program, and the Productive Safety Net Programme. The country now even has a National Nutrition Sensitive Agriculture Strategy, which mainstreams nutrition into various agricultural sub-sectoral strategies, such as extension, horticulture, and post-harvest processes. Ethiopia’s efforts to make its agricultural development strategies more sensitive to nutrition serve as a promising example to other countries that incremental policy change can lead to more comprehensive reforms.
As with many countries, in China nutrition has traditionally been the mandate of the Ministry of Health. But in 1993, the government set up a State Food and Nutrition Consultant Committee to improve multisectoral coordination. The committee developed a Food and Nutrition Development Outline, which focuses on building a nutrition-focused food industry that can achieve dietary diversity. Various other committees and working groups are slowly improving the country’s food and nutrition strategies.
Another development that highlights China’s commitment to leveraging agriculture-nutrition links is the inclusion of nutrition within the country’s No. 1 Central Document, a significant policy statement that sets annual national goals and which has traditionally covered only agriculture and rural issues. The latest version of the document calls for more research on biofortification (the process of boosting the vitamins and minerals in a crop) and fortification (adding nutrients to food products during processing, or through inputs such as fertilizer), based on the growing body of literature showing the immense potential of these technologies. Research in China, for example, has shown that biofortified β-carotene rich-sweet potato could reduce vitamin A deficiency to a 63.3% effective rate, compared with 42.9% in the control group fed with ordinary potato. This and other developments show the commitment of policymakers in China to provide multisectoral solutions to malnutrition, most often originating from the agriculture sector.
In the early 1970s, Bangladesh was a food-deficit country with a population of 75 million. Today, with more than 160 million people, it is self-sufficient in rice. Bangladesh has also recorded one of the fastest prolonged reductions in child stunting in the world, from 55% in 1997 to 36% in 2015.
Bangladesh is working hard to strengthen the links between its agriculture sector and nutrition. Its 2013 National Agriculture Policy emphasizes moving beyond rice to produce more diverse and nutritious crops. The country has invested heavily in its aquaculture sector, resulting in a 25-fold increase in farmed fish production over three decades, yielding immense nutritional benefits.
Bangladesh also regularly uses research to inform its policies. The Agriculture, Nutrition, and Gender Linkages (ANGeL) Project, a partnership between IFPRI and the Ministry of Agriculture, tested the impact of different combinations of trainings of participants in rural areas. Researchers found that integrated agriculture, nutrition, and gender trainings empowered women in asset ownership and income decisions, and men in production and income decisions. Both men’s and women’s attitudes on gender improved. As a result, the government plans to integrate ANGeL content into all 18 agricultural extension training institutes in the country, and into refresher courses for 15,000 current agricultural extension agents.
Other Countries Stepping Up
There are many other examples. India, for example, launched its National Nutrition Strategy to address child malnutrition in poorly-performing states and districts through government reform and coordination between different sectors running similar programs. The government of Malawi is formulating an Agriculture Sector Food and Nutrition Strategy, which describes the primary role of agriculture as the ability to feed people well.
These examples are not meant to gloss over the challenges. Within national policy landscapes, progress combating malnutrition can be painfully slow, and attempts to engage multiple sectors in such efforts often encounter setbacks. But what the experiences of Ethiopia, China, Bangladesh, and other countries show is that political will and leadership, at times from the highest levels of government, can reorient agriculture to address malnutrition. Although research is essential for making good policy and programmatic decisions, there is no need to wait to further build up the evidence base. Countries can take the first step in replicating these lessons, tailoring them to their particular contexts, evaluating them, and finally, scaling them up. The result can be a wave of country-level transformations of agri-food systems that can eradicate malnutrition once and for all.
This post also appears on the IFPRI blog.
Shenggen Fan, Sivan Yosef, and Rajul Pandya-Lorch are editors of Agriculture for Improved Nutrition: Seizing the Momentum, published by CABI and IFPRI in January 2019. This title is also available as an Open Access eBook.