Are There Any New Ideas in Nutrition-sensitive Agriculture?
The primary role of agriculture is to grow food for human consumption, and the agriculture sector has been largely successful in producing sufficient food to meet the energy (or calorie) needs of the rising global population. However the persistence of undernutrition, and food and nutrition insecurity in many parts of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, highlights that considerable progress is still required to ensure equitable access to a diversified and nutritious diet.
What may puzzle some, given this fundamental purpose of agriculture, is why so much attention is currently being paid to making agriculture more “sensitive” to the nutritional needs of populations. Why has our agriculture and food system changed to such an extent that it no longer acts to improve nutritional status and health?
Experiments in Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture
The general theory that agricultural interventions can improve nutrition outcomes has been tested in many contexts around the world, for at least 30 years. These interventions have interrogated the various pathways between agriculture and nutrition. For example, support for home gardens tests the pathway that home production of a diversity of fruits and vegetables as well as small livestock and poultry will increase home consumption of these foods and therefore directly improve household nutritional status. Support for the production of cash crops tests the pathway that increased farmer incomes may improve household nutrition and health through the purchase of nutritious foods and health enhancing commodities and services.
Aside from the introduction of biofortified crops (bred typically to contain raised elevels of particular key vitamins or minerals), there is currently little evidence that demonstrates a robust beneficial impact of nutrition-sensitive interventions. The evidence of any benefit of agricultural policies to enhance nutrition outcomes is also extremely scant. The reasons for this lack of evidence from intervention studies (largely poor study design and unrealistic expectations of impact) are now being confronted, and an on-going major grant scheme from the UK Department for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been designed specifically to address these concerns.
Thinking Outside the Box
But what in a way is more surprising, is how few ideas have been tested. Academic reviews have identified a very small number of interventions that have been formally tested—namely biofortified seeds, home gardens, support for livestock and aquaculture, and cash crops. Is that really all there is? Are there no other ideas? Will we really carry on testing this small handful of ideas repeatedly using the same methods until we find a glimmer of hope to support their use? It is hard to believe that there are not a range of exciting, maybe local and grassroot-led innovations in agriculture and livestock/fisheries production that have not yet been tested, and are waiting for an evidence base to support their potential up-scaling and broader implementation.
A Call to Action
The Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) programme, a multi-partner research effort led by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, is currently asking for help to identify potential ideas of innovations in agriculture that could promote better nutrition of the population in the South Asian region. We specifically are looking for new interventions in agriculture that require formative research to aid their design, and/or research to understand their feasibility before being tested in large intervention studies. We also have an eye on the future and on the likely impact of environmental change on agricultural production.
It would be fantastic if you could contribute your ideas to the online consultation live on the FAO website (FSN Forum) www.fao.org/fsnforum/user/register between May 18 and June 5, 2015. We will use your ideas to define a LANSA research call due in July 2015, so your ideas have a real potential of being the subject of future LANSA research funding.
Please do submit your ideas however big or small – there are important innovations out there and this might just be the route for them to make a major contribution to support agriculture to improve nutrition globally now and in the future.
Alan Dangour is LANSA lead for the research theme, "how strong is the evidence that agriculture can be pro-nutrition?"