The debates at the three-day International Conference on Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health in New Delhi were peppered with phrases like “think multi-sectorally”, “inter-sectorally”, and “break down the silos”.
Participants pointed out that “nutrition and agriculture talk to each other, and so do nutrition and health”, but “health has never told agriculture what it needs,” because the links between the three sectors seemed to have broken down.
Veteran health, agriculture and nutrition experts – and there were quite a few of them among the estimated 1,000 government officials, academics, aid workers, donors and private sector representatives who attended – remarked that these discussions were at least three decades old.
Symptoms of the breakdown surfaced in 2007/08, when the world was jolted by the food price crisis, said David Nabarro, the UN Special Representative on Food Security and Nutrition. The crisis, sparked by various factors that influenced both the supply and demand side of food availability, pushed at least a billion people into hunger.
The fact is, “agriculture, health and nutrition are tightly wedded,” said John Hoddinott, a senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a US-based think-tank and organizer of the conference.
Agriculture is the primary source of calories and nutrients worldwide, and in developing countries is often the major source of personal income, as most people are either subsistence farmers or farm labourers.
The links between nutrition and health are obvious. “Health status is… affected by the consumption of goods that directly improve or worsen health. Nutritional status affects health - for example, severe vitamin A deficiencies lead to blindness,” wrote Hoddinott, who developed a framework conceptualizing the links.
Women take centre stage
Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a professor at Cornell University and a 2001 Food Prize laureate, while trying to distil the talk into what needed to be addressed, emphasized “access to food, especially for the poor, often the smallholder farmer or labourer, who in most cases is a woman”.
Women’s health was a central feature in most of the debates. Various speakers pointed out that a woman’s well-being shaped the future of her children, especially her daughters, the mothers of the next generation. The future prosperity of the country often also rested on the shoulders of women, as agriculture not only created economic growth, but children who ate well often went on to earn better incomes.
Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, in the UK, cited research showing that women usually got the short end of the stick when subsidized farming inputs were made available, and suggested experimenting with gender-based quotas.
However, encouraging women to participate in farming meant they would have to spend more time in the field away from their children, which called for innovative solutions and commitment from government and civil society, said Meera Shekhar, a leading health and nutrition specialist at the World Bank. “We need to build a movement.”
Jay Naidoo, a former minister in South African president Nelson Mandela’s cabinet, said the initiative should be led by civil society and grassroots organizations, whose voice he found lacking at the conference.
|You can always find the money - if you have the political commitment and drive then anything is possible|
Home grown initiatives
Various initiatives have been trying to address these concerns, such as the one led by Ibtada, an NGO working with semi-pastoralist women in northeastern Rajasthan, a mostly arid province in western India.
Women in these marginalized conservative communities have traditionally not had a voice, but as the rains have become increasingly irregular, many men have been forced to seek work in towns, leaving the women to tend their livestock and small patches of land.
Ibtada persuaded the women to form cooperatives to farm and trade goats to supplement household income. “We get the time to look after our children but if we have to go [to the market], the men do not mind looking after them,” said Uganti Yogi, one of the beneficiaries. The women have earned the respect of their communities because they have become equal contributors to the family income.
Purvi Mehta-Bhatt of the Kenya-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and Paul Sommers, head of agriculture at Save the Children, an international NGO, pointed out that policy-makers and academics might be complicating things unnecessarily - all it would take to empower women was the support provided by agricultural extension services.
“It need not be anything complicated - you just need to tell the extension worker that you need the farmers to grow this particular vegetable, legume, or fruit, because the community needs this particular nutrient,” said Sommers.
Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of agricultural development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said identifying the nutritional needs of a community required data, which was lacking in most instances.
Haddad noted that donors needed assessments of the impact of agriculture on nutrition before they could pump money in, and there were hardly any around.
“You can always find the money - if you have the political commitment and drive then anything is possible,” said Bibi Giyose, senior food and nutrition security advisor at the African Union’s development agency, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
She cited the example of Botswana, which managed to halve its high levels of malnutrition within a decade by running an aggressive campaign to provide fortified porridge to infants, and meals to school-going children, without any donor funding.
Experts said it was time to re-establish the links between agriculture, nutrition and health, and perhaps educate each sector about the objectives of the others.
In his closing address, Shenggen Fan, director-general of IFPRI, said it was about sharing experiences and learning, but at least the dialogue had been reignited.