Research on Agriculture for Improved Nutrition

Research on Agriculture for Improved Nutrition


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Malnutrition, particularly in women and children, is a major threat to health in developing countries.  Intuitively it seems obvious that agriculture – since it involves growing and rearing food for human consumption – could be used to improve diets and increase access to essential nutrients.  Yet the relationships between agricultural practices and nutritional outcomes are complex, depending as they do on a whole range of political, economic, technical and societal factors.  These factors interact to determine not just what is produced by farmers, but whether it ends of up on the plates of those who need it most (how it gets from ‘farm to fork’).   In consequence – along with a lack of high-quality evaluations of previous projects – our current state of knowledge about what works in terms of using agriculture to improve nutrition is relatively weak, and there are many questions that still need to be answered.


It was with this in mind that the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH) and the Centre for Sustainable International Development (CSID) at the University of Aberdeen to identify what research is currently being conducted, as well as planned, on agriculture for improved nutrition.  The report Current and planned research on agriculture for improved nutrition: a mapping and gap analysis highlights the wealth and breadth of research currently going on as well as gaps in the research.   As part of the study team, I would like to share with you some of our key findings, particularly the gaps we identified.  Our hope for this work is that it will help target future research to where it is needed most.


In total we found 151 current or planned research projects, most of which are part of broader research programmes such as the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. The findings include:


  • A significant majority of projects concern Sub-Saharan Africa, with a particular focus on nutritional impacts on women and children. 
  • Most projects are led by organisations in Europe and North America, with research partners typically located in low and middle income countries (LMICs). 
  • Current research is of a range of types, including evaluations of agricultural development projects, research focused on specific agricultural interventions, and the creation and analysis of large datasets on agricultural and nutritional change. 
  • Most research projects are directed at improving the production of nutritious foods, including biofortification, other crop improvements, indigenous /traditional/local foods and agrobiodiversity.

One of the outputs of our study is a conceptual framework which we developed to define pathways by which agriculture may contribute to nutrition, either directly or indirectly (Box 1).  We found this framework very helpful in characterizing individual research projects as well as identifying gaps in the research overall.

Using the conceptual framework we identified eight clear research gaps:

  • The whole research chain – research that considers the full pathway of change from agricultural inputs, practices, value chains, food environment to nutrition outcomes; a significant number of projects do not consider the value chain
  • The indirect effect of changes in agriculture on nutrition, through income and economic growth and associated changes in health and investments in health and education services
  • The effects of agricultural policy on nutrition as mediated through the value chain
  • Governance, policy processes and political economy as it relates to the development of agriculture-for-nutrition policies and programmes, the ability to implement them (and scale up) and for them to achieve their stated goals once implemented.
  • The way research on agriculture and nutrition is conducted, such as the development of methodologies and appropriate metrics
  • Consumers as a broader target group, notably rural workers and non-rural populations
  • The rural and urban poor at risk from nutrition-related non-communicable diseases
  • The cost-effectiveness of different agricultural interventions in terms of their ability to improve nutrition.

Although information was collected on the metrics and methods used in the research where available, it did not appraise them in anyway, meaning that it was not possible to identify gaps arising from inadequate quality in existing and planned research projects.  We think this could be an interesting area for further work.

For any questions or queries about this project, please contact me, Rachel Turner, at


Hawkes, C, Turner R, Waage J.  Current and Planned Research on Agriculture for Improved Nutrition: A Mapping and a Gap Analysis. August 2012.  Available at and

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At a Glance

Agriculture, Nutrition