A man harvests lettuce in Intibuca, Honduras. Photo by: USAID-ACCESO / Fintrac Inc. / CC BY-NC-ND

Agriculturalists may be responsible for feeding the world, but horticulturalists will make sure those meals are nutritious — and contribute to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

Specialists gathered in Cairns, Australia, last week for the International Symposia on Tropical and Temperate Horticulture, told Devex that their craft was uniquely suited to help developing countries meet SDG targets. Horticulturists focus on plant cultivation, usually of nonstaple crops, such as fruits, vegetables and nuts.

“It is perfectly possible to feed the world in 2050, but it may not be possible to nourish it at the same time,” Dyno Keatinge, professor of tropical agriculture at the University of Reading, told Devex. “Without horticulture you cannot do the latter.”

While agriculturalists look for low-cost, effective, and large-scale means of producing food for human consumption, horticulturists tend to work on a smaller scale and carry out extensive research in their domain in order to get better quality crop yields, improve their nutritional value to humans, make crops pest and disease resistant and adjust to environmental stresses. In addition to its environmental benefits, horticulture could employ youth and women, as well as reach disadvantaged groups with a more nutritious food supply.

Horticulture “is clearly part ending hunger, achieving food security, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture, but it’s also poverty, women and empowerment, infrastructure, employment generation, sustainable consumption,” said Hannah Jaenicke, executive secretary of GlobalHort. She told Devex the field could contribute to reaching targets in about half of the 17 SDGs.

Benefits to chew on

Nutrition is one obvious area where horticulture can contribute. Developing communities will be healthier, stronger and more resilient when they are producing and consuming fruits and vegetables. “If we see a fall in the number of people obese or with Type 2 diabetes fall, we can be sure that people are eating a better balanced diet,” Keatinge said.

Horticulture education can also play a role in improving food safety and sanitation, particularly as more of the world becomes urbanized, according to Jaenicke.

“As people move to the cities in developing countries, we are seeing food being grown in urban areas and concerns of unsanitary food conditions,” she said. “For example, people are using puddle water to clean fruit and not thinking about what is in that water.”

The field could attract younger workers, as well. Requiring less physical labor than traditional agriculture, horticulture is aiming to become a key employer for developing communities. “Young people see agriculture as being too hard, so we are working to show the employment benefits of horticulture,” Astha Tuladhar, horticulture researcher with Meijo University, told Devex.

She said that the field’s links to marketing, technology and media can also make the work more attractive. Aesthetics are a key part of horticulture training. “Horticulture connects to a range of field these days, including IT and social networking. And through modern media, we can making horticulture cool like art.”

For now, Jaenicke said the number of new horticulture entrepreneurs, or “hortipreneurs,” is still limited. But the opportunities are there, and new businesses stand to create jobs and build stronger ties between small farmers and markets.

In Nepal, for example, Tuladhar is working to encourage female hortipreneurs through a three staged program of microcredits, followed by seeds and training, and then an introduction to the market. She hopes the initiative will help encourage women to take a stronger role, both in business and in their communities.

Stewards of the land

Protection and preservation of the environment is another key concern for horticulturalists, offering potential benefits for four of the SDGs.

“Horticulture producers are stewards of the land,” Peter Batt, adjunct professor in food and agribusiness marketing at Curtin University, told Devex.

By studying the soil, horticulturalists can make better use of water for crops. By studying nutrients and chemicals, they can make sure plants get what they need without impacting what lives around them. They strive to maintain biodiversity and conserve plant crops.

“All the thousands of horticulture species, in particular vegetables and fruit, are in fact in danger,” Stefano Padulosi, senior scientist with Bioversity International, told Devex. “We have in the world 1750 gene banks, but if you look at what most of these gene banks contain you will find predominantly cereals and other usual suspects that provide calories to the world. Much more work needs to be done to safeguard and study the spirit of horticulture.”

Making their case in policy circles

Despite the diverse benefits of horticulture within developing countries, the industry lacks recognition and funding, researchers told Devex. “We are lamenting the lack of political support in many countries,” Jaenicke said.

Participants in last week’s forum told Devex they believe a lack of understanding and awareness about the importance of nutrition is one of the reasons politicians globally are underinvesting in horticulture, and the infrastructure to support it. They hope to see more funds devoted to research, but also to projects such as roads to facilitate the transportation of food and improved irrigation to boost efficiency and quality.

The current dearth in investment could lead to brain drain for the industry, practitioners warned. “The reality is that globally, there is a decline in agriculture education and interest in agriculture and horticulture,” Batt explained. “I was Australia’s only food and agribusiness professor and was laid off in an involuntary redundancy. So what we are seeing is agriculture programs being shut down, horticulture programs have all but disappeared. There is just not the investment by government.”

Despite the challenges, there was a strong sense of optimism from the horticulturalists at the conference. Attendees called on their fellow researchers, the development sector and private sector to work jointly to help horticulture achieve its potential for the SDGs.

“It is everybody’s job to make horticulture relevant,” Padulosi said.

For more Devex coverage on land matters, visit Focus On: Land Matters

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.