Mainstreaming Nutrition in African Agriculture Development Discourse, Opportunities and Challenges

Mainstreaming Nutrition in African Agriculture Development Discourse, Opportunities and Challenges


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It is not justifiable for any child to die of malnutrition in the first 1000 days of their lives. Improving the nutrition of women of childbearing age and young children is critical. Poor nutrition during the 1000 day period from conception through the first two years of life adversely affects the development of the child’s brain and body, severely compromising growth, learning, and future health and productivity.  Chronic malnutrition is caused by a combination of insufficient good-quality food, poor health, and inadequate care practices, particularly in the first 1000 days of life.

This phenomenon should not be allowed to continue as each one of us is responsible directly or indirectly; we must work together to revisit our commitments as a government and institutions and/or individuals to do something to eradicate the problem.

The main purpose of this post is to share my thoughts on agriculture and nutrition focusing on the challenges, opportunities and key recommendations. The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement did a great job in bringing more attention and focus on nutrition and should be thanked for that. It is now time to focus this attention towards underlying factors, of which agriculture is a crucial one.

Agriculture and nutrition: the nexus

There is an important linkage between agriculture and nutrition. It is one thing to recognize that but another to be able to ensure the opportunities are harnessed for the interest of communities to enable them take advantage of the potentials. Agricultural products are not only sources of energy and nutrients, but are also sources of fuel, medicine, fiber, and lumber. Agriculture as an activity is also the source of livelihood and income for much of the world’s population, especially those living in rural areas. For this reason, agriculture has a considerable, positive impact on health and nutrition.

On the downside, agriculture can have many negative effects on health and nutrition. Agricultural production, trade, and distribution can negatively affect the environment through pesticide and fertilizer runoff polluting the soil and ground water. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 1.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water.

This is the scenario as a consequence of the model of agriculture being promoted as green revolution type, as we have seen in Africa as in other parts of the world. The green revolution and industrial type of agriculture focuses more on profits and productivity with lots of focus on external inputs, and to a large extent causing pollution and destruction to the environment as opposed to the agro-ecological and sustainable agriculture model

Making the links: A challenge for civil society

Traditionally, agriculture, nutrition and health sectors have operated as separate entities, and therefore policies and government structures have been designed without looking closely at the interactions among these sectors.

Agricultural policies and projects have traditionally focused only on increasing yields, productivity, and general food availability in countries or regions, relevant in both developing and developed nations. As has been argued by Bouis and Welch, “Agricultural systems have never been explicitly designed to promote human health and, instead, mostly focus on increased profitability for farmers and agricultural industries”.

There is enough evidence to show how useful agriculture could be in ensuring good nutrition. However both nutrition and hunger fall within a broader mandate that necessitates the inclusion of agriculture, health, education, water and sanitation, and other departments. Programmes such as CAADP have initially failed to tackle this important linkage between agriculture and nutrition. As a result, the emerging national agriculture investment plans could not account for any nutrition-specific interventions.

The call for investments in African agriculture has also been very focused on large-scale agriculture which is targeted to mono-cropping for the export markets and hence very little attention has been placed on national food and nutrition security. Many governments underinvest in programs and efforts to reduce food insecurity, and fail to provide the essential domestic public goods and investments to integrate agriculture and health systems for sustained growth.

The challenges to leadership and coordination in many developing countries are evident. Too often, no single entity takes primary responsibility for working at the nexus of systems in research, policy and program development. There needs to be new political incentives and institutional arrangements, particularly in sectors that are traditionally thought of as very distinct—agriculture and health. To do this, any effort to design an intervention or policy that would look at these important sectors needs to tackle the complex issues of land, gender, trade and markets, among others.

The way forward

The road to developing a comprehensive approach to ensuring food and nutrition security is a long one, taking into consideration the various levels of complexities in the inter-sectoral policy design, formulation and implementation.

In Africa, we need to take deliberate efforts to revisit the model of agriculture that is more geared towards export-oriented and mono-culture type, to make it more responsive to the needs of communities in rural Africa. There are more environmentally and economically friendlier models that could address climate change issues, provide a more diversified food systems to increase farmers insurance against crop failure and improves the lives and livelihood of the farming communities.

Women are at the nexus of agriculture, nutrition, and health. As smallholder farmers and caretakers of children, women make daily food production and consumption decisions for their families. Therefore investments need to target women smallholder farmers as they produce the bulk of the food in Africa yet they remain vulnerable to issues of hunger and malnutrition.

We need to review the CAADP framework for it to be responsive to issues of women, climate change response, and nutrition. This will address the apparent gaps that exist at the level of the framework. This scenario is also mirrored at the national level with the investment plans developed by the governments.  This way all efforts geared towards food security and nutrition will be achieved.
Finally all the new initiatives targeting investments to Africa (the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition; Grow Africa; Zero Hunger Initiative of Lula institute) should include nutrition as a focus in their interventions.

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At a Glance

Agriculture, Nutrition, Policy