Rebalancing Agriculture will Deliver for Nutrition and Gender Equality

Rebalancing Agriculture will Deliver for Nutrition and Gender Equality


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My recent activities have led me to realize that we need to rebalance agriculture if agriculture is to fulfill its fundamental responsibility to deliver nutrition. In doing so we will also address many of the gender inequities in the agricultural system.

What do I mean by rebalancing agriculture? Why would I say that? In recent review work and engagement with Harvesting Nutrition, a competition for agriculture for nutrition projects, I realized that the discourse on agriculture and nutrition is becoming more confused.

Some people when talking about agriculture for nutrition are actually talking about multisectoral nutrition interventions, where one sector engaged is agriculture. That is very different from what is agriculture’s core responsibility in delivering nutrition. I argue that agriculture has a role to deliver on nutrition in its own right, independent of engagement in multisector interventions – albeit that including other interventions would magnify agriculture’s nutritional impact.

What is agriculture’s core role?

Agriculture's role is to deliver an affordable, accessible, nutritious diet for all. Unlike other sectors it also needs to do this without harming nutrition. My contention is that agriculture fails to do this and has become more unbalanced in this respect dating back to the Green Revolution, and may well get more so given climate change and the agricultural response. This unbalancing also has major consequences for women farmers. In fact if women farmers had voice in priority setting, agriculture may well not have become so unbalanced!

Don’t get me wrong the Green Revolution was necessary – it has delivered much needed productivity gains for staple grains. But it needed to go much further and still does. Staple grains are belly fillers, they are largely sources of energy, and to some degree, proteins. But they fail to deliver many of the micronutrients so critical to good human nutrition. The Green Revolution delivered for staple grains but it did not deliver for fruits, vegetables, legumes, livestock, fish, and forestry products.

Food Prices and Nutritious Diets

By 2007 it is clear staple grain prices were much cheaper relatively speaking than in 1970, but it is not clear that the cost of a nutritious diet was cheaper. It is an open question whether the relative falls in staple grain prices were sufficient to offset the neglect of the more nutritious foods needed in a human diet. The relative neglect of productivity improvements in non-staple crops, livestock, forestry products, and fish results in rising prices both nominally and relative to staples crops as demand increases from both a  growing population and rising incomes. The response to the 2007/2008 food price crisis was a further focus on the need to deliver higher yields in staple grains. I lived and worked in Bangladesh at the time and went to numerous seminars where the argument was made that if Bangladesh increased rice productivity then people would be nutrition secure. There was no recognition that a rice dominated diet cannot produce nutritional security, particularly for very young children in the 6-24 month age range.

It is widely acknowledged today that the world produces enough food to feed everyone, but that is not equivalent to a nutritious diet for everyone. There is evidence today that we do not even produce enough fruits and vegetables globally to feed everyone. This may well get worse. Beyond perishability, fruits and vegetables are far more sensitive to climate variations in terms of temperature and shocks such as floods and droughts than staple grains.

Benefits of Rebalancing Agriculture

So we need to rebalance agriculture not to neglect staple grains, but to increase the relative focus on fruits, vegetables, legumes, livestock, fish, and forestry products. These are not only good sources of micronutrients in human diets but they tend to be higher value agriculture products per unit of land. They deliver higher incomes to poor farmers, particularly those who have small plots who cannot produce an adequate income with staple grain cultivation.

Shifting the balance of agriculture would also deliver for women. Why? Because while women do grow staple grains for their own household consumption, they are also the core producers of legumes, fruits, and vegetables to complement their grains in households food supply; they are also far more likely to raise small livestock, have indigenous fish ponds of small fish, and forage for forestry fruits and nuts. So agricultural research in delivering productivity gains for these higher-nutrient foods would deliver what women need to deliver for their families.

But I also referred to the agriculture sector being unique in that it needs to deliver an affordable, accessible, nutritious diet for all without doing nutritional harm. How can it do nutritional harm? One area is food safety in cultivation and post harvest in terms of mycotoxins. Aflatoxins, one of the mycotoxins, has been shown to be highly correlated with, and many think cause, increased stunting in children. In Benin, as the level of aflatoxin in children's blood increased, stunting levels were higher. At high enough levels people die of aflatoxicosis, as happened in Kenya in 1982 and 2004, and India in 1974. Given aflatoxins are cumulative in human consumption and almost impossible to destroy, we need to prioritize research to address them in field. But we have not done so… maybe because they are more of an issue for poor smallholder women farmers. Once infected in field the toxins multiply over time, particularly when drying and storage conditions are poor. Men often grow grains for sale immediately after harvest, when aflatoxin levels may be lower and undetectable.

Women dry the grain at the side of the road, and store it in damp granaries. As a result women who have worked so hard to grow grains such as maize for their families ultimately poison their children with the fruits of their labors.

Agriculture needs to make sure that chemical inputs, such as fertilizer and pesticides, are used correctly, and do not contaminate local water sources that are used for hygiene and food preparation. When irrigation is developed it should not displace water for human consumption, food preparation and hygiene. If it does then women will restrict the amount of water they use, potentially change the foods they cook and compromise hygiene. All of these are likely to result in increased diarrhea, particularly among children compromising their growth.

So we need to rebalance agriculture, and particularly agricultural research. We need to broaden the focus on staples beyond yields to focus more on issues such as nutritional quality, mycotoxins, storage, processing, cooking traits, and qualities. We need to increase the focus on fruits, vegetables, legumes, livestock, fish, and forestry products. In doing so not only will the  agriculture sector fulfill its core mandate with respect to nutrition, but it will be prioritizing women in its research and development. 

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At a Glance

Agriculture, Nutrition