Food security programs are shifting their focus from quantity to quality, but what is the best approach?
Article published in the Guardian, December 2012 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development-professionals-network/2012/dec/03/food-aid-improving-nutrition
This is a great article … then we hope you will enjoy it. It highlights the importance to focus on quality (diversity in foods, indigenous staples…) and not anymore (or not only) on food quantity (calories) – A vision for program development shared by Challenged Kids International.
Food security and malnutrition remain some global development‘s biggest challenges. Latest UN figures show that 870 million people were chronically undernourished between 2010–12; the vast majority of whom, 850 million, live in developing countries. Yet despite this the UN’s Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement said in it’s report that 2012 was the year “when chronic under-nutrition moved from the side-lines to the centre”. It argues that the international community has now realized the need to shift focus from simply food quantity, to one of food quality. In a word: nutrition.
There are, however, differing views as to how best to increase nutrition levels.
Monique Mikhail, policy adviser on sustainable agriculture at Oxfam, welcomes initiatives such as SUN, which has 28 developing country government members. But she and many others in the NGO community fear that international efforts to target government agricultural policies often result in more cereals to be sold as export, rather than the locally-produced diverse foods needed to improve nutrition.
“A lot of the discourse out there is pushing this large-scale, mono-culture model, without realizing the impacts of that on communities”, says Mikhail. “Land is being taken away from small-scale producers.” The World Bank identifies five ‘pathways’ that link food production to nutrition: subsistence-oriented production, income-oriented production for sale in markets, increased agricultural production, empowerment of women to control household food and health, and macroeconomic growth. But in practice, one is favored over another.
According to SUN, a 2005 Ethiopian health survey found that chronic malnutrition was highest in its most agriculturally productive regions. The inference was large-scale production can lead directly to export, or simply a lack of local food diversity.
It is a problem that Samuel Hauenstein Swan, senior policy adviser, Action Against Hunger, recognizes “Malawi promoted corn – it didn’t dramatically improve the food security of the people, but it dramatically improved the exports. They are one of the big maize exporters now. But did that reduce the numbers of stunting? Not really … ministers of agriculture are still focused on these very few grains [while] nutritious crops like sweet potatoes are not easily commercial.”
NGOs working on the ground, therefore, are increasingly promoting small-scale food production within communities. Cristina Ruiz, humanitarian program unit manager, Africa, at Christian Aid, has recently returned from two years in the Sahel region of Africa – one of the world’s most malnourished regions. “We start by working with communities to do a capacity assessment, which lasts for two or three days in a community, conducting an in-depth analysis of the risks and threats they face and the capacity they have in the community to deal with that”, she explains. “Out of that comes an action plan for how they could improve their resilience to those risks.”
The Sahel’s staples of millet and maize, of low nutritional value and severely diminished by years of drought, are now supplemented by market gardening, says Ruiz. “We help them to grow vegetables they can eat but also sell as a cash crop locally. That has been the biggest change and the biggest success. You need water to do that – so we have been providing bore holes and solar pumps.”
Mikhail also advises that development professionals look to small-scale farming when addressing malnutrition. “Small-scale livestock is also incredibly important. Consuming more meat, milk and protein contributes greatly to your overall nutritional status in a way that allows you to absorb vitamins from the other vegetable products,” he says.
Crucially NGOs seem to be finding more success by concentrating their efforts on women. The FAO argues that when women have control over household income, more money tends to be spent on items that improve nutrition and health. Mikhail agrees: “The important role that women play as carers, food producers and providers is the critical nexus for improving agricultural production, increasing production, as well as improving the quality and nutrition at consumption … I think where we had mainly fallen short in the past was that we hadn’t focused directly on women.”
Hauenstein Swan believes that food security remains dominated by calorie intake and food aid. But he says the knowledge now exists to move beyond that towards resilience, empowerment and hardier, more nutritious staples such as sweet potato, QP Maize and golden rice, rather than allocating vast amounts of land for export crops. “On the global level”, he says, “you can’t escape nutrition now when you talk about food security.”
A field guide nutrition checklist
1. Identify the scale and cause of undernutrition. Collect information about the magnitude of undernutrition, its causes and severity. Then identify and target the most vulnerable groups, especially pregnant mothers and children under two.
2. Assess food consumption patterns. Gain an understanding of what the community eats, where they obtain food, and the nutritional gaps.
3. Assess the level of government commitment. Look at the national nutrition strategy and policy framework and the level of current/planned budget to roll that out, including local representation and extension services.
4. Identify care and health practices. This includes informal care – mothers, siblings, fathers – as well as formal health care services in the area.
5. Promote biodiversity and sustainable agricultural practices.
6. Give women the means to empower themselves.
7. Promote the production and consumption of meat, dairy products and fish (where available).
8. Reach out through multiple channels. Home visits, agricultural extension services, nutrition counselling, women’s groups, dramas and storytelling. These could be combined with other essential health services such as immunization.