The nexus of agriculture and nutrition

Integrating nutrition and agricultural assistance for small-holder farmers can help improve the health of families in the developing world. Photo by: Fintrac

There are no magic bullets in development, though there are often trends that are mistaken for them. In the end, the good ones are folded into evolving toolkits of smart policies, technologies, infrastructure and local services that together create sustainable economic growth and build resiliency.

That said, the current donor focus on food security emphasizes nutrition in agricultural development programming, and the impact of this nexus is increasingly exciting.

The baseline is criminal. Forty-five percent of child deaths under age 3 are caused by malnutrition, and cognitive impairment is the lasting legacy of its survivors. One in every five children in the world is stunted.

But awareness is expanding, as is a sense of urgency to combat the malnutrition epidemic. Global leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, are joining the ranks of those delivering the message that the first 1,000 days of a child’s development are essential to the ability to learn and grow, and the U.S. government launched the Feed the Future initiative as a model for elevating nutrition interventions and metrics within agricultural projects.

Development practitioners are in agreement that a multipronged approach is required. Just as important as the foods one eats are safe water and good sanitation. The increased availability of healthy foods is as much about expanding household purchasing power as it is about selecting and growing nutritious crops. Agricultural programs that increase small-holder yields and incomes are now universally recognized as potential contributors to healthier families and children, and are able to exponentially increase effectiveness when nutrition activities are integrated.

Additions and adjustments to integrate nutrition are fairly simple to make, share and replicate — and an energy and momentum is taking hold that transcends typical development trends. Examples include the mobile kitchens first introduced by a program in Cambodia supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development to jumpstart community-based awareness campaigns and that are now being adopted by other donors in different locations; the healthy household program in Honduras, also designed and implemented by a USAID project, which promotes sanitary and smoke-free homes and has prompted private investment as part of corporate social responsibility initiatives; and a school garden initiative in Tanzania that educates children, augments family diets and hires teachers with surplus produce sales.

Virtually all current field-based agricultural development projects support small-holder diversity with crops that are high in minerals and vitamins like green leafy vegetables, carrots, sweet potato and tree fruits, and many promote small-scale egg, milk or fish production and, increasingly, fortified foods. Basic health and nutrition messages are being incorporated into everything from agronomic extension to school curriculums to promote behavioral changes, and M&E systems that once reported only yields and hectares under productive practices are now tracking children’s height and weight.

Obviously, pregnant and lactating women have long been a focus of nutrition interventions; the difference now is that agricultural income generation rightfully plays a critical role, given that a $10 increase in a woman’s income achieves the same improvements in children’s health and nutrition as a $110 increase in a man’s income. But more can and should be done with regard to training males on the benefits of better nutrition and basic household improvements to the health of the entire family.

Indeed, there is plenty of room in this new paradigm for additional ideas, applications and interventions that could effectively change behaviors, food availability and outcomes for the world’s most vulnerable populations. The point is that nutrition might not be the magic bullet — but for food security, it certainly is a transformational ingredient.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

About the author

  • Claire starkey rs

    Claire Starkey

    Claire has been collaborating on agricultural initiatives with local and international partners to improve food security for farmers and farm families in developing countries for three decades. A creative strategist, she provides leadership to Fintrac's organizational development, advises staff and clients on best practices to achieve sustainable impact, and advocates for increasing women's participation in the agribusiness sector worldwide.