March 19, 2015

Potential for Nutrition Gains in Nepal through its Agriculture Sector

Jess Fanzo, Columbia University

Agricultural and food systems around the world have evolved to become more complex and globalized. The nutritional quality of food production, processing, and consumption – as determined by the food system – is intrinsically related to the World Summit goal for all people to have the opportunity to lead a healthy and active life. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture aims to maximize the positive impact of the food system on nutritional outcomes while minimizing any unintended, negative consequences of agricultural policies and interventions for the consumer. It is placing a nutritional lens on the food and agricultural sector as a whole, without detracting from the agricultural sector’s own goals, which historically focus on increasing production and improving income.

The multifaceted role of agricultural policies in the food system is well understood, but their impact on nutrition is less well known. Debate continues between those who suggest that agricultural policy should play a large role in producing nutritious food and those who believe that it is more important for agricultural policy to focus on “feeding” the planet and promoting economic development by increasing production, especially that of cash crops.

Pothana Landscape in Nepal. Photo by Derek White.

Pothana landscape in Nepal. Photo by Derek White.

Case study on understanding nutrition-sensitive policies

A study was recently done in Nepal that assessed the food-agriculture policy landscape as it relates to nutrition and highlighted the gaps in our understanding of effective nutrition-sensitive policies and commitments.

Nepal is an interesting case study to examine because they have a political commitment to end undernutrition in their country. They are also on track to achieve its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to reduce the prevalence of underweight children ages 6-59 months to 29% by 2015 and the prevalence of childhood stunting decreased by 14% from the period 2001 to 2006 and further declined by 16% between the years of 2006 and 2011 (NDHS). However, despite significant improvement in recent years, Nepal’s rates of chronic undernutrition remain high in comparison to similar low-income developing nations. At the same time, agriculture growth has been somewhat stagnate although the country is predominantly rural.

An extensive literature review, a country visit and stakeholder and focus group interviews were completed as part of the policy analysis. The primary strategies and plans analyzed were the Nepal Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Plan (MSNP) 2013-2017, the Agriculture Development Strategy Final Draft Final (ADS) 2013 and the Food and Nutrition Security Plan of Action (FNSP) 2013.

Terraced landscape in Landruk, Nepal. Photo by Derek White.

Terraced landscape in Landruk, Nepal. Photo by Derek White.

Highlights of Nepal’s nutrition plans

Overall, all three plans have explicit nutrition objectives in their design, recognition of gender equality initiatives, nutritional impact measurements in their monitoring and evaluating systems, opportunities to maximize through multi-sectoral coordination and targeted the most vulnerable populations being women and children.

All the plans include activities and interventions that in some way, shape, or form:

  • Diversify production and livelihoods for improved food access and dietary diversification, natural resource management, risk reduction and improved income.
  • Increase production of nutritious foods, particularly locally adapted varieties rich in micronutrients and protein, chosen based on local nutrition issues and available solutions.
  • Reduce post-harvest losses and improve processing.
  • Increase market access and opportunities, especially for smallholders.
  • Reduce seasonality of food insecurity through improved storage, preservation and other approaches.
  • Target household income to improve nutrition, mainly by increasing women’s income.

The three plans could be strengthened in the following three areas:

  • Empowering women through: increasing income; access to extension services and information; avoiding harm to their ability to care for children; improving labor and time-saving technologies; and supporting their rights to land, education and employment. This is particularly true for the issues of land rights and employment.
  • Incorporating nutrition education to improve consumption and nutrition effects of interventions; in addition to employing agricultural extension agents to communicate on nutrition. The MoE (Ministry of Education) must be more engaged in all nutrition plans.
  • Managing natural resources for improved productivity, resilience to shocks and adaptation to climate change. There must also be more equitable access to resources through soil, water and biodiversity conservation. These areas are largely neglected in these plans with the exception of the biodiversity strategy, which doesn’t provide direct links to nutrition.
Women and their children at a nutrition education session in the southern part of Nepal. Photo by Jess Fanzo.

Women and their children at a nutrition education session in the southern part of Nepal. Photo by Jess Fanzo.

The plans are weak in:

  • Assessing the context and causes of malnutrition at the local level, to maximize effectiveness and reduce negative side effects. For this reason, there must be improved local surveillance and understanding of situational and causal analysis at the village development community and district level.
  • Increasing equitable access to productive resources. Although the FNSP tries to target the bottom of the pyramid, the equity issues around food distribution and access remain vague in all the plans.
  • Identifying the research needed to understand intra-household dynamics of food consumption and distribution along with most adequate nutrition sensitive agriculture interventions and way of knowing this.

Concerns remain on the lack of an adequately supportive environment across all three plans. These areas include policy coherence across all plans and policies to support nutrition, sufficient governance on nutrition, the effectiveness of the plans in the long-term, a resource (in terms of finance, human, infrastructure) gap analysis and resource mobilization plan for agro-based interventions impacting on nutritional improvement and the capacities in ministries at national, district and local levels.

Looking toward the future

It is too early to assess the impact of these policies and plans on nutrition outcomes for Nepal. It can be assumed that in the past, Nepal’s nutrition plans failed in many aspects. Overall, it is safe to say that agriculture has been underfunded and not engaged in nutrition activities; however, with new plans in place, this could change. Even still, there are drivers that are beyond the plans and policies that Nepal will inevitably face, inhibiting better nutrition (or perhaps improving it in some cases) as Nepal continues to develop. These drivers include: remittances and outmigration and their impacts on the feminization of agriculture, the impact of rice consumption, commercialization of agriculture, equitable distribution of food and access to hard to reach populations, land grabbing and the role of the private sector in the nutrition transition and dietary shifts.

Long lasting change takes time, especially to reduce undernutrition. Nepal’s current food and agriculture plans are ambitious, and commendable. At the same time, Nepal is a young country, and faces a long path towards development and economic security. With that said, nutrition goals and targets should be aggressive, but also realistic and achievable in the appropriate time scales. It is hoped that the lessons drawn from this study will influence Nepal’s decisions in the future.

Jess Fanzo is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Human Nutrition and a Senior Advisor of Nutrition Policy at the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development at Columbia University. She works on the linkages between agriculture and nutrition in low-income and conflict countries.
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