Bringing “Nutrition” Back to Agriculture and Food Security

By Margaret McEwan/International Potato Center, Danny Hunter/Bioversity International and Gordon Prain/International Potato Center

The African Union declared 2014 to be The Year of Agriculture and Food Security. As researcher-practitioners passionate about agriculture-nutrition linkages and the contribution of agricultural biodiversity to nutrition outcomes, we find it interesting that sometimes the declaration is referred to as the “Year of Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition” but the “Nutrition” is often dropped…

In 2003, member states of the African Union committed to increase investment in national agricultural efforts to 10% of total public expenditures and to increase agricultural output to 6% of GDP. However, only thirteen countries have met this investment commitment and not on a sustained basis; and the agricultural growth rate has been closer to 4%. Meanwhile in sub-Saharan Africa, malnutrition persists with a 30-40% prevalence of stunting in children less than five years. Too often, nutrition issues are considered the sole responsibility of the health sector, but agriculture has an important role to play to ensure adequate quantities of food and dietary diversity. Critical to this is understanding that as local food systems become more closely linked to global food systems, we need to recognize and value the importance of agricultural biodiversity for those that live in and depend on local landscapes.

So, will the deliberations of the Heads of State at their June Summit contribute to resolving some of the underlying challenges that have hindered the promotion of nutrition sensitive agriculture and nutrition sensitive landscapes in the past?

We know that improving nutritional well-being requires interdisciplinary approaches and cross-sectoral action. In the past, differing intellectual and ideological paradigms that shape thinking and action in particular disciplines and sectors have negatively influenced efforts for cross-sectoral collaboration between agriculture, health and nutrition. There has also been a plethora of sectoral and cross-cutting policy documents which only pay lip-service to achieving nutrition outcomes. Meanwhile, there is increasing homogeneity in the global food system, dietary diversity is declining, agricultural biodiversity is eroding and concerns about the sustainability of our agricultural and food systems remain.

Recently, there have been examples of convergence of concepts and approaches which have reinvigorated efforts to address nutrition challenges in a holistic and integrative way. There are global initiatives that recognize linkages for scaling up nutrition impacts, such as the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement. We have a growing scientific evidence base that food-based approaches are effective in reducing malnutrition. We also have better integrative program frameworks and corresponding indicators to track progress. The African Union’s Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) is now in its second decade. It has a results framework which seeks to balance agriculture GDP growth, poverty alleviation, food sovereignty and nutrition security, human and ecosystem resilience and the systemic capacity at different levels and with various partners for execution and delivery. Working in partnership can improve accountability to the individual partners involved. However, it can also complicate efforts because of the diverse, and in some cases conflicting, interests and accountability requirements of the different partners.

In the past, the malnourished have been voiceless and the political constituency concerned with protecting our agro-biodiversity has been dispersed. Continental and national political commitment has vacillated. Will 2014 be the Year of Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition? Will African Heads of State follow through on their political statements and commit resources to ensure appropriate technical interventions and sustained capacity for the institutional arrangements and structures to partner for improved nutrition outcomes?

Read More: McEwan, M., Prain, G. and Hunter, D. (2013) Opening a can of Mopane worms; Can cross sectoral partnerships leverage agricultural biodiversity for better quality diets? In, Diversifying Food and Diets: Using Agricultural Biodiversity to Improve Nutrition and Health (Fanzo, J. and Hunter, D. et al eds) Issues in Agricultural Biodiversity, Earthscan, UK p. 207-228.

Photo: Neil Palmer, CIAT
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