Insights and Summaries: Strengthening the Links Between Nutrition and Health Outcomes and Agricultural Research

Insights and Summaries: Strengthening the Links Between Nutrition and Health Outcomes and Agricultural Research

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The June issue of the journal Food Security featured a special section: Strengthening the links between nutrition and health outcomes and agricultural research. This special section advances the boundaries of the field of agri-health research. Much of the conversation on evidence to date has focused on production and consumption within farming households. This set of papers advances a broader view: increasing access to nutritious, safe and sustainably-produced food through markets, food environments, and enabling policy environments – and the importance of looking at impact within this food system paradigm.

From the CGIAR Science Forum to the Printed Page

This collection of papers initially arose from the Science Forum in Sept. 2013 on Nutrition and Health Outcomes: Targets for agricultural research, organized by the CGIAR ISPC (Independent Science and Partnership Council) and co-hosted by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development – BMZ, Germany. Forum discussions identified the need to conduct research to better understand some of the pathways between agriculture and nutrition and how to measure progress along them. Another key area of discussion was how research could help to ensure poor consumers have access to diverse, nutritious foods.

These two broad topics were explored in more detail at a joint Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH)/ISPC follow-up workshop held at IFPRI exactly one year after the Science Forum (presentations available here). Key findings from the workshop were published in a brief (PDF 208KB) in January 2015.

The special section of Food Security was an outlet to publish the thinking and research that arose out of the Science Forum and follow-up workshop.

The Articles in Brief

All papers in the special section are available as open access downloads through the links below.

The first three papers lay out the context and desired outcomes of the food system: improving multiple aspects of nutrition simultaneously and sustainably.

  • Gillespie et al. look at the enabling environment by asking stakeholders in East Africa and South Asia their views on how agriculture can influence nutrition, and what policy opportunities and barriers exist.
  • Webb et al. describe a multi-dimensional index of nutrition which synthesizes the six World Health Assembly targets for nutrition, pointing to the need to consider malnutrition in all its forms.
  • Along with the multiple indicators of malnutrition, another critical aspect of food system research is how nutritious diets can be produced with the best environmental outcomes. Gill et al. point to the need for multiple indicators of the environmental impact of the production of different food products.

Five papers deal with increasing access to nutritious and safe food through markets, as well as non-market channels.

  • Herforth and Ahmed show that the effect of income on diet is always modified by the food environment in markets, which they define as the availability, affordability, convenience, and desirability of various foods in the market. The impact of agricultural policy on the food environment is critical for nutrition, and the paper discusses metrics of the food environment.
  • Darrouzet-Nardi and Masters show that farm households with better access to markets have lower rates of undernutrition among children, as well as overweight among children and women. These results point to questions around how the food market environment might better support reductions in undernutrition without rises in diet-related chronic disease.
  • Powell et al. describe a different kind of food environment: the cultivated and wild sources of foods, which are a significant part of the diet for many people, particularly rural-dwellers. They review existing evidence that links wild and cultivated biodiversity with nutrition outcomes.
  • Another approach to ensuring adequate intake of micro-nutrients is through biofortification. Birol et al. compare different methods to measure consumer acceptance of biofortified foods for five crops across seven countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
  • Grace et al. use four case studies of different approaches to decreasing the risks of aflatoxin contamination to explore how agricultural research can contribute to enhanced food safety, whilst also improving accessibility for poor consumers and access to markets for smallholder farmers.

The last two papers synthesize what the current research means for agricultural research and policy.

  • Pingali argues that staple grains have been a preoccupation within agricultural research and investment, and that it is time to move away from “crop fundamentalism” that does not support agriculture to respond effectively to consumer demand for diversity. He suggests that crop neutral support could open up markets for farmers while increasing availability of diverse, nutritious food in the market.
  • To conclude on how research approaches need to respond to these changes in access to food,McDermott et al. call for a “fundamental change” in how agricultural research is designed to contribute to nutrition outcomes, with a strong focus on what drives consumption from both demand and supply-side perspectives. They call for broader partnerships, reaching beyond commodity value chains to engage with participants across the wider food system including policymakers.

The Science Forum brief, the A4NH/IPSC workshop brief, and the Food Security special section all demonstrate an emphasis on sustainable food systems that provide and encourage nutritious diets as a main need in agricultural research.

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