Optimizing farmer’s contribution through better health and nutrition

by Iain C. MacGillivray

For many decades the global political and development agendas have failed to give priority to hunger and undernutrition. While increasing and volatile food prices have drawn attention to the world food situation and there have been recent commitments to tackle global undernutrition and promote nutrition-sensitive investments, 805 million people remain hungry today.  A further two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiency, or hidden hunger, impacting both individual life opportunities and collective productiveness.

It is a tragedy that one in eight women and men still go hungry, and every day 8,000 children die needlessly from conditions linked to undernutrition—a tragedy that must not be allowed to continue. The international community must ensure that food and nutrition security is at the heart of the new post-2015 sustainable development framework, and must mobilize greater efforts to end poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

In “leaving no one behind”, rural-urban inequalities must be addressed, with particular attention on small-scale agriculture, including women, indigenous peoples and family farmers. This is truly a defining moment for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) as these issues reaffirm its mandate and become center stage in the post-2015 universal agenda.

Investing in rural people is IFAD’s business. The women, men and children in developing countries that depend on smallholder agriculture, forestry, livestock and fisheries are the custodians of vital natural resources and biodiversity, and are central to mitigating climate change. They are also central to global food and nutrition security. Smallholder agricultural development and rural transformation need to be an integral part of the post-2015 global development agenda, if that agenda is to succeed. This new agenda is a unique opportunity to refocus policy, investments and partnerships on inclusive and sustainable rural transformation.

If the needs of rural areas are not addressed, rural-urban inequalities may only deepen, which will impact rural and urban populations alike as well as global food security. On the other hand, rural transformation and rural growth have the potential to drive inclusive sustainable development, from economic growth and employment to poverty eradication, from a healthy environment to inclusive societies, from gender equality to food and nutrition security for all.

Today, 500 million smallholder family farms in the developing world support the livelihoods of close to a third of the world’s population and are mostly managed by poor smallholders, nearly half of whom are women.  These small family farmers produce 80 per cent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, and agriculture is the largest provider of employment in many countries and regions.  In countries lacking adequate reserves of foreign exchange to import food (a problem exacerbated by the food price spikes of recent years), the contribution of family farming to domestic food supply is even more crucial. Indeed, in the many developing countries that are net food importers, increasing production on smallholder family farms can reduce vulnerability to exchange rate and other trade-related shocks.

It is both unfortunate and ironic that that those who grow the food are often those who go hungry.

Smallholder families suffer from poor quality diets and malnutrition due to inadequate consumption out of their own production. They often do not have the incomes or resources to access other sources of food.  Investing in rural people to increase smallholder productivity can help improve nutrition and health in developing countries.

Feeding a world population that will exceed 9 billion by 2050 will require the contribution of smallholder family farms. This will be possible only if there is a more integrated and comprehensive development approach to optimize agriculture’s contribution to good nutrition and make food systems nutrition sensitive. That means making sure nutrition outcomes for rural and urban people are central to planning, design and implementation of agricultural and rural investments.

IFAD is committed to making all of its country programmes and one-third of its projects nutrition sensitive in just four years. This means that IFAD country initiatives will go beyond recognizing that investment can improve nutritional status. They will now explicitly state how they contribute to improving the nutritional status of farm household members and incorporate nutrition objectives, indicators, and actions.

With its understanding of the need to engage with other sectors on nutrition, IFAD will expand and align its efforts on nutrition with existing global and national priorities and initiatives aimed at eliminating malnutrition.

IFAD supports the proposed sustainable development goal of ending hunger, promoting sustainable agriculture, and improving nutrition, as well as the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, which brings together international donors, civil society, private sector and agencies, and more than 50 developing countries, many of which are IFAD partners.

Improving nutrition will require working across many sectors, including health, education, and water and sanitation.  It will also require that agricultural investments are designed to empower women and achieve gender equality, allow women time to take care of their children and other family members, and improve their nutritional knowledge and dietary and hygiene behaviours. IFAD aims to provide countries with the financing, technical advice, policy and programme support needed to develop nutrition-sensitive agriculture.

Activities that make investments nutrition sensitive include: production, processing and storage techniques related to more nutrition-oriented value chains, such as those for biofortified nutrient-dense crops; nutrition education; behavioural change communication; homestead production; institutional and community-level capacity strengthening (particularly women’s empowerment); policy engagement (including advocacy and outreach); and analytical work and market studies specific to countries.  These efforts can create links between agriculture and nutrition by promoting economic value for producers and traders and encouraging nutritional and health value for consumers.

For IFAD, a future where healthy and well-nourished smallholder family farmers are at the centre of the agricultural, economic, environmental, and social agendas is essential for promoting equitable and sustainable development.  The Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) of this November is a chance for world leaders to demonstrate leadership with actions to arrest the scourge of hunger and malnutrition. Smallholders and agriculture cannot be left behind.

Originally published F@rmletter  - The E-magazine of the World's Farmers