Attendees at the Crawford Fund Annual Conference held in Canberra on August 1. Photo by: Crawford Fund

CANBERRA — Since World War II, the primary goal for agriculture production and research has been in securing food and reducing hunger. But with obesity growing globally at a rapid rate and inadequate nutrition holding back even those who can fill their bellies, agricultural research is increasingly looking at improving the quality and nutritional value of food.

That nexus between agriculture, food security, nutrition, and health was the focus of discussion at this year’s Crawford Fund Conference, held in Canberra on Aug. 13-14.

Here are the key takeaways from the conference.

Nutrition needs and food production are out of sync

Food and agriculture are at the center of the Sustainable Development Goals, and are core in the success or failure of achieving goals by 2030, said the conference’s keynote speaker and EAT Foundation Chief Executive Officer Alessandro Demaio.

Today, 2 billion people lack key micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A, while 151 million children are stunted. Two billion adults and 41 million children, meanwhile, are overweight or obese.

A larger number of countries are now facing the double burden of malnutrition and obesity: Infants are being born into an environment with limited food, leading to stunting, only to face obesity as adults, when improved economic conditions lead to wider food choices.

According to Demaio, the world is off track to meet global nutrition targets by 2030 and will continue to be so as the balance that is required for a healthy diet and food production remains out of sync.

The world is producing 11 percent fewer vegetables than needed, 49 percent less milk, 44 percent less fruit and 68 percent less nuts and seeds. At the opposite end, we are producing 48 percent more fish than needed, 54 percent more whole grains and a massive 468 percent more meat than what is required to support global nutrition needs, Demaio explained to the audience. And this is leading to the consumption of less nutritious food options.

It is a production model that is unsustainable to health and the global environment, Demaio said.

Challenges facing global health

Responding to the challenges of malnutrition is easier than focusing on nutrition. According to Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, it is easier to view obesity as a personal choice rather than as a health risk requiring government policies and investment to overcome.

Even Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson, in her address to the conference, overlooked the importance of agricultural research and programs to combat obesity, instead focusing on malnutrition.

Speakers urged that nutrition be given more prominence in programming for both developed and developing countries, and that education be provided to families during children's formative years to ensure they understand healthy choices. Outside assistance is necessary in order to transition the supply chain, ensuring that healthier food choices are not prohibitive due to higher storage costs.

According to Campbell, solutions required strong leadership that bring sectors together.

“We’re not going to achieve this unless we have a revolution in governance,” he said. “Humans are now operating at a scale that we have never operated before and we are physically changing the planet and exceeding some boundaries already. But many of the changes we are facing are not going to be predictable — they are going to be surprising. So we are going to have to respond at a range of levels.”

The big convergence of food, nutrition, water, and health, all amplified by climate change, Campbell said, is going to need a much more integrated approach than seen in the past.

Rebecca Boustead, head of corporate communications for Kellogg Asia Pacific also urged for stronger political leadership on food nutrition, saying food companies could not be successful in changing consumer tastes if they are not backed by a government push that promotes the benefit of health eating.

“Creating consumer demand for healthy products is difficult,” she explained. “Our challenge [now] is that if we want to improve food supply we have to do it over time. It’s much easier to change existing foods rather than get new food on the market. So it is how we can work together to encourage food companies for the work we do.”

There are also mistakes that have been made in aiming to do the right thing to create a food-secure future.

A joint Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organization and WorldFish research project from Bangladesh presented findings that the growth of aquaculture to produce fish stocks for feeding is leading to food with lower nutritional quality than their wild fished alternatives — iron, zinc, and calcium are among the micronutrients being lost.

Focusing on food quantity can therefore lead to a weakening of the nutritional value of food being produced. Campbell emphasized that it is important for the agricultural sector to take leadership in changing practices to address these issues.

“If we just go down that track and absent ourselves from the debate of dietary choice at the societal level, then at the end of the day, agriculture is going to be bracketed as the problem because the impact on national budgets of noncommunicable diseases is already incredibly heavy in some of the countries we work in,” he said.

Promoting new initiatives

The conference was not just an opportunity to address the challenges and importance of nutrition in agriculture — it was also an opportunity to look at projects investigating ways to changes practices and behavior.

In Bohol province in the Philippines, a project supported by ACIAR is showing important results in reducing the environmental and nutrition damage due to choices made two decades ago to promote cassava farming. These led to loss of food variety, soil depletion, salinization of the local water supply, and poor quality yields.

“ACIAR and ICRISAT [International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics] applied land care techniques from Australia and helped the farmers shifting from cassava up and down the slopes to mixed vegetation on the contours and perennial plants on permanent vegetation strips,” Campbell told the audience.

Not only did it lead to better household food choices, but it provided a more reliable income and an improved environment.

Initiatives are looking to encourage a shift back toward traditional vegetables in a range of developing countries. Marco Wopereis, director general of the World Vegetable Center, highlighted their greater nutritional value compared to commonly grown vegetables such as cabbage as well as the environmental benefits through the reduction of herbicides and improved economic benefits. A combined initiative of the Papua New Guinea National Agricultural Research Institute and Charles Darwin University is looking to educate children and parents on the importance of traditional vegetables in their diet — and the best ways to grow and cook them.

There are also initiatives to identify and develop policy solutions to nutrition challenge.

As part of a four-paper series supported by Demaio, The Lancet will be publishing a blueprint for action on the burden of malnutrition. It will first provide the landscape in which this challenge was created, and look at the biological pathways in malnutrition, the policy requirements for change, and the economic impact if no action occurs.

And the EAT-Lancet Commission will develop “hard targets” to feed 10 billion people a healthy and sustainable diet by 2050 — with the aim to create a win-win situation for the planet and human health.

Growing beyond the big three

Another major initiative promoted was the ICRISAT’s Smart Food initiative, a program that has received support from DFAT as a LAUNCH Food winner.

Joanna Kane-Potaka, assistant director general for external relations at ICRISAT, explained to the audience that the Smart initiative had three core objectives: To deliver food that is good for health, the planet, and the farmer.

“But the biggest challenge in achieving this is the food system divide,” she said. “For decades, we have had the vast majority of investment on the big three — wheat, maize, and rice.”

The focus on the big three, she said, was not only seen in private sector investment but in global agricultural research and development. And this, she said, was not only encouraging farmers to grow crops that were not suited to their environment, but also reducing the variety of food options on tables.

“If you go to developing countries, they typically eat stables — 70 percent of what is on their plates are staples,” Kane-Potaka said.

Still, learning from the successes of the big three could help create greater diversity — and move to the “big five or the big seven.”

Millet and sorghum are two varieties the Smart Food initiative is putting forward as additional options due to their high nutrition value. Combined with education programs, they are aiming to encourage consumer demand for new varieties and shift eating habits beyond the three main staples.

The transition is in its early stage with a scientific case being built for the benefits of new staples.

“We need business not as usual,” Kane-Potaka said.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior 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 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.