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Development economist Lawrence Haddad argues that improving nutrition can, and should, be a central goal of agriculture.

Agriculture could, and should, speed up improvements in nutrition. Although we know the links between farming and diet, we don't use them to their full potential. And, even if we start, we will still need new pathways to reduce malnutrition.

People's nutritional status depends on several factors as well as food and income — healthcare, for example, or the position that women hold in society. And sectors other than agriculture, such as social protection, deliver food too. So nutrition does not depend only, or even chiefly, on agriculture.

But agriculture should be driven by nutrition goals — what else is agriculture for? We need to move from the era of thinking of improved nutrition as an optional extra objective to one where it is a raison d'être

Pathways for improvement

Agricultural production can improve nutritional status in several ways. Where more productive farming strengthens the economy and lowers food prices, people have more income left over, and this is often linked to a more diverse diet — although it does not always translate to a health benefit.

People who grow their own food benefit directly from producing crops with a high nutritional value. Similarly, biofortifying crops could boost the content of key micronutrients without compromising the macronutrient supply, but it will not work in all places or for all crops.

And we can influence demand for certain foods with nutrition-knowledge campaigns. These are often effective when combined with other interventions.

Across these pathways, women have a key role to play. Supporting their empowerment so they control all stages in the agriculture-nutrition chain will lead to decisions that reflect their preferences and priorities — and this tends to improve nutritional status for the women and their families.

We don't yet know enough about how development, investment and agricultural research can improve nutrition. Clearly the potential is there. But how do we make sure that these pathways are actually travelled?

Inadequate evaluation

Weak and poorly organised evidence makes it difficult to assess whether the potential for agriculture to increase its impact on nutrition is being realised.

Evaluations of whether agriculture brings nutritional benefits are hard to find. Of 761 'impact evaluations' by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, published from 1995–2008, only 83 focused on welfare indicators such as health status.  

Neither the organisation Poverty Action Lab nor the International Initiative on Impact Evaluation have undertaken or commissioned many impact studies for agricultural projects. And although there are good literature reviews available, these are not systematic.

Measuring the effects of agricultural growth on income or nutrition is difficult. Even where evidence exists, results are inconclusive.

Using income as a proxy for nutrition, cross-country data cited in the 2008 World Development Report suggest that a one per cent gain in gross domestic product associated with agriculture generates much more income for the poorest parts of the population than does gross domestic product growth not associated with agriculture.

And there are more mixed results from careful studies for Brazil and India, where service sectors and urban growth appear to be stronger drivers of poverty reduction than agriculture and rural growth.

Converging targets

What needs to be done to harness the potential of agriculture for nutrition? Technical ideas are necessary but not sufficient. To dovetail nutrition and agriculture, what we need is institutional innovation to generate and sustain political pressure.

We need new methods to monitor health and developmental outcomes associated with nutritional status. Real-time monitoring, for example, using new mobile technologies and cloud computing, can guide action to reduce malnutrition — especially in areas where conventional monitoring systems are weak.

More donors are now looking for evidence that interventions improve people's lives. Often, donors frame their expectations within the Millennium Development Goals. This creates an opportunity to insist that agricultural projects and programmes are evaluated for their effects on nutrition. Difficulties in measuring nutritional status or other challenges are not insurmountable and should not stand in the way.

But to maximise benefits, policymakers will need guidance on how to prioritise plans. Practical experience shows that the strategy to follow will depend on context rather than ideology — nutritional needs, agricultural possibilities, political space, organisational capacities, conflict and environmental fragility.

And we need to ensure that strategies designed to enhance the impact of agriculture on nutrition are implemented correctly. Good leadership is a common element of past success stories.

Many people connected with agriculture say it is mostly about food production, less about income generation and certainly nothing much to do with nutrition. It is, in fact, about all three. We need to see each of these objectives as a tactical route towards the strategic goal of improved nutrition. 

There will be tradeoffs between these objectives. But ultimately they need to converge in the understanding and commitment that agriculture must essentially be about reducing hunger and malnutrition.

Lawrence Haddad is director of the Institute of Development Studies, a research institute based at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, and Chair of the Development Studies Association of the United Kingdom and Ireland.