Nutrition-smart agriculture

Published On: January 24, 2017 12:25 AM NPT By: Bhairab Raj Kaini

As agricultural production increases, households also see increased food security and better nutrition outcomes 
Agriculture is the only source of food and nutrition for the majority of Nepalis. Especially the poor are directly or indirectly involved in agriculture and derive multiple benefits from its multifunctional character. But policymakers and agriculturists in Nepal have traditionally had little impact on nutritional outcomes. The emphasis has rather been on productivity, agricultural growth, greater income and return on investment. People working in public health were concerned with nutritional status, morbidity, mortality and child development. Although the role of agriculture to improve the quantity and quality of diets for subsistence farmers is important, it was overlooked. 

Realizing this, the Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS) has emphasized food and nutrition security through agriculture development. According to the ADS, agricultural growth is reflected not only in additional income but also in greater availability, access and utilization of nutritious food, particularly for those who are currently food-insecure.

As agricultural production increases and diversifies, households see increased food security and better nutrition—which in turn leads to increase in human capital and productivity. There are many studies that link agricultural growth with reduction in the number of underweight people. 

There are multiple ways in which agriculture can influence nutritional outcomes. The most direct way is through production of nutritious food for household consumption. The second is through increased household income through sale of food produced or through wages from farm labor. Third way is through agricultural policies that affect food prices. A fourth way concerns how income obtained from agricultural production or labor is spent. 

By investing in nutrition-sensitive agriculture programs, there can be sustained impact on health and productivity of families. Diversified agricultural production improves access to diverse and nutritious foods. Since different food groups provide different benefits, consumption of diversified foods is important for overall health. Likewise, programs that promote better storage conditions and add value to products through processing also improve household nutrition.

Homestead food productions also improve dietary intake and micronutrient status, and decrease morbidity. Nepal is rich in crops that are suitable for kitchen garden, throughout the year. Nutritious vegetables and fruits can be grown in the homestead or kitchen garden. This is the direct way how increased production translates into greater food availability and nutrition security. Agricultural interventions promoting increased and diversified production of fruit and vegetables rich in nutrition curb micronutrient deficiencies as well.

Agriculture can also support nutrition supply system indirectly. Increases in agricultural production and productivity are vital for sustained economic growth in underdeveloped countries and they have major impact on poverty. One cross-country analysis found that a percentage increase in agricultural yields lowers the percentage of national population living on less than a dollar a day by between 0.64 and 0.91 percent. So agricultural interventions should aim at improved nutritional outcomes through both self consumption and agricultural growth and income pathways. 

Agricultural programs that integrate gender result in improved agricultural productivity and better household nutrition status. When women have more control over household resources, families are healthier, better educated and they have more access to nutritious foods. Equitable access to resources for women and marginalized groups increases both production and home consumption. We thus need to advocate for land rights, water and sustainable resource management. Promote programs that facilitate access to required resources, such as access to credit, productive assets, extension services and markets.

Agricultural interventions that include a nutrition education component at school will also increase the likelihood of positive nutritional outcomes. Helping small producers respond to changing food demand is also vital. Further, the role of women in delivering nutrition outcomes makes gender an inevitable priority for nutrition programs in agriculture. 

The jurisdiction over food production is assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture while food distribution is handled by the Ministry of Supplies. Nutrition, however, falls within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health. Health Ministry generally assumes direct responsibility for nutrition, but it has weak link with other two ministries. Hence it would be a good idea to establish a multi-sector agency to coordinate actions among these ministries. Such a mechanism should be extended to all level so as to address specific and local issues.

Invest in research on food crops rich in nutrition and focus on small farmers. At the same time programs that promote better nutrition, take into account climate change, improve resilience and productivity of local foods and improve ecological and sustainable farming practices should get priority.

Bio-fortification, the process of embedding nutrients into food crops, provides a comparatively cost-effective, sustainable and long-term means of delivering more micronutrients. As a food-based intervention, bio-fortification uses staple foods that the poor are already eating to deliver necessary micronutrients to them. Therefore bio-fortified foods are more easily integrated into livelihoods and diets of the poor. Bio-fortified crops would provide micronutrients far more cost-effectively than conventional means with high annual recurring costs.

Traditional farming systems in Nepal use a diversity of crops in both mixed and relay intercropping as well as integration of crops with livestock and/or aquaculture. Such farming systems are associated with improved yields as well as positive implications for food and nutrition security. So more information on how to improve food production, storage, conservation of nutrients during food preparation and prevention of food wastage is also desirable.

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