Leveraging Agriculture to Enhance Nutrition and Health
Fund Office hosts seminar on research for development
Mopeia district, Mozambique. Photo: Jan Low. CIP.
June 5, 2012 – “The potential to improve nutrition through agriculture is enormous,” said Marie Ruel, director of the Poverty, Health and Nutrition Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “But agriculture alone does not improve nutrition,” she added during a June 5 presentation that was part of the CGIAR Fund Office’s new seminar series, chaired by Jonathan Wadsworth, Executive Secretary of the CGIAR Fund Council.
While agriculture has made remarkable advances in the past decades, progress in improving the nutrition and health of poor farmers and consumers in developing countries is lagging behind.
Research can help by evaluating integrated agriculture, nutrition and health programs and documenting what’s working, and what isn’t. Evidence to date suggests that the behavior change component of some programs is often the weak link.
Improving collaboration between researchers, policymakers, and development practitioners is also critical to ensuring that research outcomes are relevant and timely and ultimately lead to results on the ground, said John McDermott, director of the new CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, which is led by IFPRI.
The program is designed to fill the existing gap between agricultural development and its unfulfilled health and nutritional benefits through four research components that directly address the problems of low diet quality—the main cause of undernutrition worldwide—and vulnerability to agriculture-associated diseases. The components are:
- improving nutrition along value chains to increase the poor’s access to nutritious foods;
- improving the availability, access, and intake of nutrient-rich, biofortified staple foods;
- addressing food safety issues along the value chain, including the control of zoonotic diseases and better management of agricultural systems to reduce disease risk; and
- addressing the need for integration among the agriculture, nutrition, and health sectors at both the program and policy levels.
When it comes to reducing disease and illness, we need to identify what agriculture is doing to increase and mitigate risks so that we can better manage them, explained Delia Grace, Programme Manager at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and leader of the program’s agricultural-associated diseases component. We also need to improve our understanding of the linkages between human, animal and environmental health, she added.
To increase the poor’s access to nutritious food, more and better information is needed about how to build value chains for informal markets that supply poor households, said Laurian Unnevehr, IFPRI Senior Research Fellow. Nutritious diets depend on increasing both the supply and demand of diverse foods. In India, for example, creating market incentives for farmers of minor millets with important protein advantages could increase production and ultimately contribute to healthy diet diversity.
Investment in biofortification—a process by which high levels of vitamins and minerals are bred into staple crops consumed by the poor—is already reaping results, said Howarth Bouis, program director of HarvestPlus. Research shows that individual’s micro-nutrient status improves when they consume biofortified crops, such as cassava rich in pro-vitamin A, which is available in Nigeria, and high-iron beans, which will be released in Rwanda later this month. The goal of HarvestPlus and its partners is to reach 50 million people with biofortified crops by the end of 2018.
Biofortification not only has great potential to improve nutrition and health, it is also very cost-effective relative to traditional interventions. Once the initial investment is made to develop the technology, it can be made available in country after country, year after year, at a relatively low cost. “That’s the power of investing in agricultural research,” concluded Bouis.