Friday, August 1, 2014

Nutrition-sensitive agriculture: Connecting the dots

ROME, 24 July 2014 – As the importance of nutrition-sensitive agriculture rises on the global development agenda, IFAD and its partners are working to "mainstream" nutrition into their investments and activities. As a result, there is an increasing demand for experts who understand the links between agriculture and nutrition. In the coming years, they will be called upon to design nutrition-sensitive agricultural and rural development projects that effectively contribute to ending hunger and malnutrition in poor and vulnerable communities.

Woman picks cucumbers in her vegetable field in Bangladesh. ©IFAD/GMB Akash

To expand the pool of experts who can take on such assignments, IFAD hosted an intensive training workshop at its Rome headquarters last week. About 40 staff and consultants  participated in the four-day session, which was developed jointly by IFAD, the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and REACH, a partnership of United Nations agencies working to scale up food and nutrition interventions.

"This is a watershed moment," said Bibi Giyose, senior nutrition policy officer at FAO and previously nutrition advisor at the New Partnership for Africa's Development, or NEPAD. The session was an example of UN agencies "working together for one big, wonderful cause," she noted.

The workshop brought together practitioners from various disciplines – including agronomists, nutritionists, economists and agricultural investment planners – and from several continents. Benoist Veillerette, senior agricultural economist at the FAO Investment Centre, said it would help to bridge the "culture gap" between people involved in different but complementary aspects of rural development.

"We need to anchor nutrition at the agriculture table," added Charlotte Dufour, food security, nutrition and livelihoods officer at FAO. "It's part and parcel of agriculture."

Iain MacGillivray, special adviser to the IFAD President, told the participants, "You really are pioneers in accelerating the contribution that agriculture can make to nutrition." MacGillivray, who was formerly senior adviser to the UN High-Level Task Force on Global Food Security Coordination, pointed out that direct, largely health-based interventions to address child undernutrition are important but not the whole story. Measures such as micronutrient supplementation and promotion of breastfeeding can reduce chronic child undernutrition partially, he said. But the remaining burden of undernutrition will have to be relieved by other investments, including food-based solutions fostered by nutrition-sensitive agriculture.

Long-term impact
James Levinson, a veteran in this field, facilitated the training session. He combined a light, unconventional moderator's touch with a steady focus on the ultimate goal of the exercise: to establish a dedicated cadre of practitioners equipped to design, implement and monitor agricultural and rural development projects from a nutrition-sensitive perspective.

Harvesting beans in Republic of the Congo. ©Baudouin Mouanda

On the unconventional side, when participants occasionally rattled on too long, Levinson wielded a small stuffed monkey as a warning for them to wind down. When he wanted to challenge a speaker by playing devil's advocate, he donned a colourful jester's cap and impersonated an impatient ministerial official.

But Levinson, Professor Emeritus at the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy, was plainly not speaking in jest when he envisioned a new "golden age" of convergence between nutrition and agriculture. Nor was he joking when he urged participants to consider the nutrition impact of project activities at every stage, and to incorporate objective nutrition indicators – such as the level of chronic undernutrition in children, or household dietary diversity– into every project. By rigorously tracking these metrics, Levinson suggested, projects can fine-tune their activities for greater effectiveness.

Continued collaboration
In the end, workshop organizers and participants alike conveyed a sense of determination to take nutrition fully into account in project design and implementation. James Garrett, IFAD nutrition advisor, stressed the need to understand the "impact pathways" for improving nutrition throughout the agricultural development process, from production through consumption, from field to plate.

Food at market in southern Peru. ©IFAD/Pablo Corral Vega

"The challenge is that the pathways aren't particularly linear, so we have to manage that complexity," Garrett said. "I hope this workshop shows that we're serious."
Participants evidently felt that it did. Julien Vallet, economist at the FAO Investment Centre, thanked the organizers for providing a “ wonderful opportunity to share knowledge on this important topic.” Paula Dominguez-Salas, a postdoctoral researcher in nutrition at London's Royal Veterinary College, called the session a "fantastic learning experience" that fuelled her interest in applying nutrition-sensitive principles to livestock development projects.

But what, exactly, makes a project "nutrition-sensitive"? That question goes to the heart of the thinking behind the recent workshop and the model of agricultural and rural development that it advocated.

A comprehensive approach
At first glance, the relationship between improved agricultural production and better nutrition may appear self-evident. If smallholder farmers can boost their crop yields and incomes, it seems to follow that their household nutrition levels should also increase. But as the training session demonstrated, connecting the dots between nutrition and agriculture is not nearly as simple as that.

Consultant Scott Drimie presents a case study at the workshop. ©Tomoko Kato

A recent IFAD publication, Improving nutrition through agriculture, pointed out that agriculture’s essential role is to ensure an accessible supply of diverse, nutritious foods at all times, either from the market or from farmers’ own production. In the past, agricultural development projects have relied mainly on increasing production and raising incomes to reduce poverty and enhance food and nutrition security. While this approach has its benefits, it is now widely recognized that higher levels of production and income alone have a limited impact on improving nutrition.

For example, a traditional project might help smallholders grow cash crops to be sold as commodities to large-scale producers. But in the absence of integrated efforts to ensure the availability and consumption of nutritious foods, the project might have little or no impact on nutrition in the target population.

What is needed instead – as the workshop participants learned last week – is a comprehensive model of agricultural development designed to prevent malnutrition, including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overnutrition. This model encompasses partnerships with other sectors, including health, water and sanitation, and education. And it requires careful consideration of the social context, notably the status of women, as well as environmental conservation and biodiversity.

Looking through a nutrition lens
Agricultural and rural development projects can adopt a range of actions to make nutritious foods more readily available, including increasing the nutritional value of the foods themselves. Biofortification and improvements in soil health can raise the nutrient value of crops. So can better storage, preservation and processing. Efficiencies in production and marketing, as well as reduction of food waste, can reduce the relative prices of more nutritious foods or the time it takes rural women and men to prepare them.

In addition, agricultural projects that promote gender equality can ensure that women retain greater control over resources and choice of crops. When agricultural investments are designed to empower women, they also have time to care for children and other family members, and to improve their nutritional knowledge.

"You don't have to be a nutritionist to look at development through a nutrition lens," IFAD nutrition and health specialist Sean Kennedy said during the training session.
"Look around. This is not a roomful of nutritionists," he concluded. "There's hope for us yet."

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