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Agriculture, nutrition, health: the new global focus begins

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I am attending the “Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health” conference under way in New Delhi. Organised by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), this is a sprawling conference with over 900 international participants from all three sectors.

What’s it all about? “Agriculture is much more than just producing food and other products. It is linked to people’s well-being in many ways, and it has the potential to do much more to improve their nutrition and reduce their health risks. But to accomplish this, we need to re-imagine agriculture,” said Shenggen Fan, director general of IFPRI.

The gathering is meant to examine ways in which agriculture can enhance the health and nutritional status of poor people in developing countries. To work toward this goal, said IFPRI, they have brought experts together (I’m civil society, and there are very few NGOs/CBOs here) from all three sectors “to take stock of current knowledge, share information and best practices, and build consensus on the actions most needed to move forward”.

Here’s the IFPRI rationale. Agricultural scientists have traditionally focused on developing more productive crops and livestock and on reducing their susceptibility to disease. IFPRI and the conference sponsors (list below) say that by incorporating nutrition as a goal, researchers and breeders could provide farmers with a wide range of healthier products. For example, breeding crops with higher levels of micronutrients like vitamin A and iron can potentially reduce death and disease, especially among women and children.

“Increasing crop productivity overall is not enough. A new paradigm for agricultural development is needed, so that agricultural growth leads also to improved nutrition and health,” said Fan. The CGIAR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) and the conference sponsors say that improvements in other factors such as land distribution, women’s status, rural infrastructure, and health status, can have a positive effect on nutrition, the paper contends. “Complementary investments in rural roads, nutrition programs, and other targeted interventions can make a huge impact.”

IFPRI's agriculture, nutrition and health logo

The development community needs to be conscious of the entire “value chain” – which is a central concept running through the discussions and presentations here. This is defined as including production, storage, transportation, marketing, and consumption, “as all of these have implications for health and nutrition”. Moreover, “after harvest, there are opportunities for improving health and nutrition, from better storage and transport to stronger nutritional marketing from retailers”.

The conference features heavyweights in the international agricultural research sector and representatives from the major UN agencies involved in these sectors. The proceedings were inaugurated by India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. M S Swaminathan was there; John Kufuor (former president, Ghana), David Nabarro, UN Special Representative on Food Security and Nutrition, and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, head of India’s Planning Commission were all there.

The conference concludes on 12 February and it will take me a few days to put my thoughts together on the themes and what they represent – the implications beyond the powerpoint world and what is driving this new focus.

The sponsors: Asian Development Bank; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Canadian International Development Agency; Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) (ACP-EU Cotonou Agreement); Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ); International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); Indian Economic Association; International Development Research Center, Canada / Le Centre de recherches pour le développement international (IDRC-CRDI); Irish Aid; PepsiCo; UK Department for International Development (DFID); United States Agency for International Development (USAID); Feed the Future Initiative; The World Bank.

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