One might be forgiven for thinking that agriculture—the ultimate source of our food—is at the centre of nutrition. Certainly, that’s how many who make their living in agriculture, understand it. That adequate, quality food underpins health, which makes it possible to produce or purchase adequate, quality food is as clear as the day is long.
Yet that’s not quite the way institutional Nutrition sees it. Agriculture has fallen into a supporting role whose contribution to reducing maternal and child malnutrition is unclear. It is hoped, but still uncertain, that it can fill the gap that specific nutrition interventions such as infant and school feeding programs and breastfeeding promotion cannot resolve on their own. To achieve this, agriculture has to become more sensitive to nutrition, what the production of food is supposed to be all about.
Bringing agriculture to the table
This strange state of affairs is in part a legacy of nutrition’s orphan status, its failure to find a welcome home within the disciplines of agriculture or health with which it is closely allied. But it’s also the result of agricultural policies that have often emphasized productivity and cheap calories, invested predominantly in certain cereals and cash crops and the production environments that favour them and downplay nutrition objectives.
The rise of the nutrition agenda has focused attention on this failing. Last year’s Nutrition for Growth Summit highlighted it; the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition aims to maintain the pressure and programmes such as IMMANA (Innovative Metrics and Methods for Agriculture and Nutrition Actions), TANDI (Tackling the Agriculture-Nutrition Disconnect in India) and LANSA (Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia), seek to refocus agricultural research.
And yet, these programmes sometimes have an air of unreality about them. The people in agricultural institutions, their understandings of nutrition, their motivations, their margins of manoeuvre to do things differently are often not central concerns. Words like “incentivise” and “leverage” imply that people have to be cajoled into change. It is in agriculture, among the areas of development, that the ideal of participation has been most prominent, so it is striking that efforts to expand the nutrition-relevance of agricultural programs and policies have not engaged the full-bodied participation of agricultural professionals.
These efforts have also so far taken little account of how innovation in agriculture actually happens. Someone—a farmer, a researcher, a processor—may realize that a new soil management technique makes possible an additional legume crop in an annual rotation. The idea may promise agronomic and economic benefits, and address the iron deficiency of local diets. But whether those benefits are realised at any scale requires innovation by different groups: farmers adapting the technique and collaborating in marketing, women preparing meals in ways that make the legume’s iron more available, researchers and extension providing a range of varieties for farmers to test and buyers stimulating spread by agreeing on attractive prices for farmers’ production.
Unleashing innovation for nutrition
This is an innovation systems perspective. It assumes that such concerted innovation can thrive when supported by interactive learning and enabling policy. The perspective, now common in many technological fields, including agriculture, has yet to widely influence thinking within many agricultural organizations. Importantly, it is still hardly in evidence within the programmes aimed at stimulating agriculture’s contribution to nutrition.
The still dominant perspective presumes that important innovation happens within formal research and development, which transfers resulting technologies to farmers for adoption. A technology transfer model is slow: it will not generate sufficient innovation to respond to malnutrition in situations of accelerating social and environmental change and marked heterogeneity. It makes available few, widely assessed options—home gardens are a notable example—and these assessments support strategic and investment decisions much more than learning and progressive improvement. There are many ways to develop a home garden and many possibilities besides home gardens. A more promising approach would build on the innovation within existing agricultural networks and promote convergence on nutrition objectives.
Some networks may already be having a significant positive effect on the food-linked drivers of malnutrition. Perhaps focused on allied concerns such as household food security, their impact on malnutrition may have gone unnoticed because there were few incentives to bring it to light. It is vital to clarify these contributions and chart opportunities to expand them.
More networks could likely make a greater contribution to nutrition with relatively small changes in direction. It is important to identify the technical or social innovation needed and the obstacles standing in the way. Of course, small changes are not necessarily easy to bring about. Some networks may unintentionally undermine nutrition. Agricultural intensification can reduce the diversity of nutrient-dense crops and expansion can erode common property food sources the poor rely on in lean seasons. Here it is urgent to highlight this impact and identify remedial measures.
Policies that support such convergence can underpin a broader, decentralized agricultural response to malnutrition that stands a greater chance of adapting to climate change and other stresses and shocks. It is an approach we are attempting to develop within the LANSA consortium in South Asia.Michael Loevinsohn is a Research Fellow at Institute of Development Studies and is the lead researcher for LANSA’s Systems of Innovation crosscut.