The 1,000 day Initiative and Scaling Up Nutrition movement, detailed in Chapter 2, brought to the political fore the serious impacts of child malnutrition, which affects 40% of children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa. Malnutrition early in life not only impacts learning, levels of schooling attained, future earning potential and national economic growth but is a condition which is often passed from mothers to children, persisting across generations.
In a new UK Parliamentary report, Home Grown Nutrition, produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture and Food for Development, agricultural and other pathways to improving nutrition are discussed.
Agriculture and nutrition
Agriculture is a key industry for sub-Saharan Africa and investments in agricultural development are one of the most effective tools to ensure economic, social and political well-being. Smallholder farmers in Africa represent the largest economically productive business sector in the developing world, but they produce only a sixth of the output of farmers in Europe or North America. The potential to increase their productivity is enormous.
Investing in smallholder agriculture can address malnutrition directly through increased incomes and the diversification of food for household consumption. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, research has shown that the biggest limiting factor on food and nutrition security is income. And a diet that meets children’s energy, protein and micronutrient needs for optimal growth and development is four times more expensive than a diet with only adequate calories. Greater income, generated through agriculture, a sector that employs the majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa, can be spent on healthcare, education and, crucially, food.
Multiple pathways to nutrition security
Good agricultural practice also increases the resilience of individuals and communities to shocks and stresses and fosters environmental sustainability but there are many other courses of action that are necessary if we are to reduce malnutrition. These include nutritional supplements and wider-economy approaches (cash-transfers), the empowerment of women, access to healthcare as well as to clean water and sanitation. Nutritional supplements, while crucial in cases of emergency, are not a long-term strategy and nutrition-sensitive agricultural practices along with wider policy changes are needed.
Women, as discussed in a Montpellier Panel briefing paper, are mothers, farmers, innovators and educators and have a significant influence on the diet of their households. They comprise 60 to 80% of smallholder farmers, and investing and supporting agricultural development can have highly positive impacts on women’s empowerment.
For both women and men, the wider policy environment is extremely important when addressing household nutrition security. Water and sanitation programmes, access to affordable and reliable healthcare, and access to finance and markets are crucial to underpin specific interventions on addressing undernutrition but require considerable effort from government systems to achieve this type of coherent and multi-sectoral policy making.
In Kenya, a “food and nutrition” policy has been launched including school feeding programmes, school weighing programmes, education on nutrition, health and sanitation education and now a nutrition action plan with involvement from all the heads of ministries. Since inception, infant mortality rates have fallen and now only 16% of under-fives are said to be ‘underweight’.
As we look to the upcoming G8 conference and David Cameron’s ‘Nutrition for Growth’ event, the APPG on Agriculture and Food for Development urges the UK Government to use these leadership positions to champion the role of agriculture in achieving food and nutrition security.
While agriculture is central to tackling malnutrition and hunger, on its own it is insufficient to address these challenges and the wider enabling environment must be strengthened for rural communities.
Despite little evidence on the links between investments in agricultural development and improved nutritional outcomes, the APPG believes that “investment in nutrition sensitive agriculture must be increased, in tandem with increased investment in research and evaluation of such projects.” To fail to act due to a lack of evidence “would be a great disservice to the many poor and needy smallholder farmers in Africa.” For the future agricultural development projects would benefit from having a sound monitoring and evaluation component that includes nutrition related outcomes.
The report concludes with a series of specific recommendations to boost efforts to tackle malnutrition.
- Invest in agriculture as a long term project, putting smallholder farmers at the centre of these programmes
- Include improved nutritional outcomes as one of the objectives for new agricultural investment programmes
- Ensure that at national level there is a coordinated effort across ministries to work on addressing the challenge of food and nutrition insecurity
- Encourage “Home Grown Nutrition” by investing in farmers’ education and training on the benefits of a diversified diet and where to access appropriate inputs
- Invest in long-term and comprehensive research, monitoring and evaluation programmes on the role that agriculture plays on nutrition
- Recognise that for interventions in agriculture it is not always as easy to provide evidence of impact as in other sectors, such as education and health
- Promote a policy environment which recognises agriculture as a key tool to ending hunger, food and nutrition insecurity