Industries in Depth

How agriculture can improve health and nutrition

Shenggen Fan
Director General, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

The agricultural sector presents key opportunities for improving nutrition and health. But this connection is often not given due attention, despite parallel initiatives across the three sectors.

The potential impacts of agricultural activities on health and nutrition extend across a number of channels. One area of impact is household ability to produce, purchase and consume more, better and cheaper food. Over the past 40 years, agricultural advances, such as the Green Revolution, led to the doubling of cereal production and yields, improving the well-being of many people and providing a springboard for remarkable economic growth. More recently, biofortification efforts to breed and disseminate crops that are rich in micronutrients, such as vitamin A, zinc and iron, have improved vitamin and mineral intake among consumers in Africa and Asia.

Another important contribution of agriculture towards nutrition and health is increased rural income, allowing people to improve their diets. The poor are overwhelmingly located in rural areas and derive a significant share of their income from agricultural activities. Given the importance of agriculture for the livelihoods of the rural poor, agricultural growth has the potential to greatly reduce poverty – a key contributor to poor health and undernutrition. Agricultural activities can also generate economy-wide effects such as increasing government revenues to fund health, infrastructure and nutrition intervention programmes.

Agricultural intensification has been essential to feed the world’s growing population, but it has also brought its own risks for people’s health, including zoonotic diseases, water- and food-borne diseases, occupational hazards, and natural resource degradation and overuse. Similarly, water, energy (electricity) and fertilizer subsidies have been linked to distorted consumption and production choices and the crowding out of public investment.

Still a long way to go

Despite major progress, serious concerns remain about the nutrition and health situation throughout the developing world. An estimated 805 million people still go hungry and many people also suffer from hidden hunger, that is, deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals, which are associated with a number of negative health and economic impacts. At the same time, 2.1 billion people worldwide (37% of men and 38% of women) are obese and overweight and this figure is rising (especially in the developing world), bringing with it a rise in non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer).

Much more can be done to take advantage of agriculture’s potential to improve nutrition and health.

A critical first step is improved knowledge on the agriculture-nutrition-health nexus. We need to go beyond a blind pursuit of indiscriminate agricultural growth. Instead, we should promote “smarter” growth by learning more about the health and nutrition impacts of different subsectoral patterns of agricultural development. Important steps to build up this knowledge base include investments in research, evaluation and education systems capable of integrating information from all three sectors.

Using this knowledge, agricultural strategies should be designed to minimize risks and maximize the benefits to nutrition and health across the entire value chain, from production to consumption. Important steps include the development and dissemination of more nutritious, biofortified food consumed by poor people, and public information campaigns and pricing policies that address both undernutrition and obesity. Policy-makers should eliminate distortive subsidies and use the resulting savings to diversify agricultural production and consumption to include more nutritious food products such as beans, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. Such initiatives should also focus on improved processing practices and policies, including better transportation and storage infrastructure that reduces food loss and waste.

A common language

Generating more integrated knowledge and strategies requires a policy and research environment in which cooperation and partnerships can thrive across the three sectors. Stakeholders need to move away from jargon, which discourages clear communication, and work towards developing a common language. Partnerships between the private and public sectors play an especially important role in improving the efficiency of post-harvest value chains. A more collaborative approach should start with cross-sectoral training and education programmes alongside clear stakeholder guidelines and responsibilities.

We must all begin to take concrete actions help people overcome poor health and malnutrition. An important step in this direction is a new path for agricultural development, one where agricultural growth is used not only to increase food production but also to enhance nutrition and health.

Author: Shenggen Fan is Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Vice-Chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Food and Nutrition Security.

Image: A farmer works on a rice paddy field outside Hanoi September 7, 2011. REUTERS/Kham

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