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Nutrition finds a place in agriculture plan

Baby-weighing at a health clinic in Mamou, Guinea. October 2007
(Nancy Palus/IRIN)

The quality of a baby’s first solid food and teaching families about proper nutrition and hygiene are now part of Guinea’s agricultural investment strategy. Experts working on the 2011-2015 agriculture plan, to be finalized in the coming weeks, say the first-ever nutrition component stems from an increasing recognition that agriculture must be harnessed to improve nutrition and health.

“There is a realization that agriculture is not production alone,” said Kaba Camara of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. “We need to ensure people are educated about proper feeding habits and monitor people’s nutritional status.”

The new section of the investment plan covers nutrition education, improving access to nutrient-rich foods, treatment of malnutrition, and complementary feeding for children aged 6-24 months, according to Mamady Daffé, head of nutrition in the Health Ministry.

“Of course the important thing will be implementation,” he told IRIN. “But it’s already a quite important step that we have integrated nutrition into the agriculture scheme.” 

Camara said the move stems in part from a 2010 forum of the Economic Community of West African States, at which experts said it was time to do away with the institutional walls between the health and agriculture sectors and incorporate nutrition into overall development.

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For decades agricultural research and development focused on maximizing production, with nutrition policy and monitoring on a separate track; but in recent years there has been more of a focus on agriculture’s role in improving health and nutrition, especially of poorer populations. In February policymakers, donors and agriculture and nutrition experts met in New Delhi to discuss the interconnections.

Gaps remain in research and data on how agriculture can help boost people’s nutritional status. A 2007 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and World Bank said: “Malnutrition remains an urgent global public health concern. Yet the question of how agriculture can most effectively contribute to improved nutrition outcomes remains essentially unanswered.”

One of the paper’s authors, Marie Ruel, director of IFPRI’s poverty, health and nutrition division, says this question is still largely unanswered, partly because any initiatives over the years have not been well documented.

What has changed in the past few years, however, is that many more policymakers, donors and researchers are talking about it, she said. “A lot more people are recognizing that we really don’t have the choice; we have to bring the sectors together, we have to make agriculture recognize better its role in providing not just enough food to feed people but also enough of the quality, nutritious foods, and that these are made more accessible to the poor.”

Agriculture could boost nutrition either by increasing income so a family can purchase more and higher quality food, or by helping farmers produce more nutrient-rich foods. The merits and effectiveness of both are still under study but, IFPRI’s Ruel said, neither approach can be standalone.

Food knowledge

“Having the right foods at the household level, either because you produce them or because you buy them in the market, is not enough; people need to know how to use the food and how to use it for the age groups that are most vulnerable to malnutrition - that is, of course, young children and women of child-bearing age.

“The key to success [in countries that have made progress] has been to press all the buttons at the same time, that is, address the problems in the society that contribute to poor nutrition, while also targeting vulnerable groups with specific nutrition interventions, for example, micronutrient supplementation and promotion of optimal breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices.”

She said the 2007-2008 food price crisis had been a wake-up call about the need to incorporate nutrition into other social sectors. “I think the fact that nutrition was always the orphan and always falling between the cracks is maybe less of an issue now because other sectors are… interested in finding ways to incorporate nutrition in social protection, in agriculture, in education.”

Guinea has abundant mineral resources but also some of the region's best farmland and rainfall. Still, given poor infrastructure, high illiteracy and a weak health system, living conditions are difficult for most people. Chronic malnutrition rose by 50 percent from 2005 to 2010 and as of last year nearly a quarter of Guinea's 9.8 million people were moderately or severely food insecure, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Guinean officials are to hold meetings in local languages with farmers in the country’s four main regions later this month before finalizing the agriculture investment plan, according to Mamadou Kaba Souaré of the Food and Agriculture Organization, which is working with the government.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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