Agriculture for Nutrition and Health

Does better agriculture mean better nutrition?

October 1, 2015
by Gero Carletto, Marie Ruel, Paul Winters and Alberto Zezza

Does agriculture matter for nutrition? Certainly, the amount and quality of food produced in a food system, the availability of that food, and its price affect the types and quantities of food people eat, as well as the variety and nutritional quality of their diets.

If food systems worked well in providing consumers with diverse, nutritious, and affordable diets, people could procure their food on the market, regardless of their own agricultural productivity. But among poor households in Africa south of the Sahara and parts of Asia, this is not the case; rates of food insecurity and malnutrition in those areas are severe. For these households, the linkages between food production and food consumption are likely to be critically important to ensure proper nutrition.

A special issue of the Journal of Development Studies (JDS) on “Farm-Level Pathways to Improved Nutritional Status” examines this hypothesis in depth via eight studies that use different types of data, metrics, and analytical tools to explore the existence of a linkage between household agricultural production and nutrition, the conditions for its existence, the differences in impact across individuals within a household, and the pathways of impact. (For a limited time, the Introduction to the series is available via open access here.)

This work builds upon a 2013 article in The Lancet that identified four key pathways through which agriculture may affect nutrition : (1) food prices; (2) income from agriculture; (3) consumption of own production as a result of market imperfections; and (4) factors linked to gender (such as women’s social status and empowerment in agriculture, their time, and their health and nutritional status).

The JDS studies find that agricultural production has direct and important linkages with household dietary patterns and the nutrition of individual members. But the heterogeneity across the eight studies is fascinating, and demonstrates the complexity of the initial question—which can be asked and answered in many different ways. For instance, what do we mean by ‘agriculture’ when looking at linkages with food security and nutrition at the farm level? And what measures of production diversity, dietary diversity, food security, and nutrition do we use? Furthermore, whose nutrition is being measured: children, adults, specific age groups, or all of the above? The papers in the special issue offer a wealth of insights from a variety of perspectives.

Table 1 in the Introduction synthesizes the key differences in data and methods among the papers. With respect to agriculture, some papers use a measure of production diversity, others focus on particular types of products or production assets linked to specific products (such as dairy cows), and still others look at the overall value of crop production or agricultural income. The measures of nutrition are also diverse, ranging from dietary factors (diversity, intake of specific nutrient-rich foods, or of individual nutrients such as vitamin A) to anthropometric measures, mostly for children 6-59 months old, but in one case for adults in Tanzania, and in a study in Nepal for mothers.

The types of datasets used also vary widely between the studies. Half of the papers use national Living Standard Measurement Study – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) datasets, three use datasets from baseline surveys carried out in the context of impact evaluations of agricultural and nutrition programs, and another uses experimental data from a randomized controlled trial. The nature of the data resulted in a variety of analytical and statistical approaches. This collection thus brings together a rich set of studies that contribute to a better understanding of the importance of agricultural productivity diversity at the household level for food access, individual diets, and nutritional outcomes in a variety of settings and across a range of populations living in resource-constrained environments.

Highlights from the special issue include the following results:

  • Biofortification can play an important role in improving children’s diets, but mechanisms to ensure high program participation should be put in place in order to maximize impacts (de Brauw et al.);
  • Studies in Africa (Dillon et al. on Nigeria; Kumar et al. on Zambia) find positive associations between crop diversity and dietary diversity; the Zambia study also finds that greater crop diversity is associated with lower rates of stunting, but only among children 24-59 months old;
  • Three studies using data from East Africa (Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda) find evidence of positive effects of livestock ownership on animal-source food consumption. For example, in Ethiopia, dairy-cow ownership increased the frequency of milk consumption by 23 percent and reduced stunting among children under two by 5.5 percent (Hoddinott et al.); these effects, however, were not significant in areas with good access to local markets, suggesting that where local markets are functional, they can substitute for own production (in this case cow ownership).
  • Tracing the linkages between agriculture and nutrition requires consideration of the diversity of pathways through which these links operate, such as agricultural commercialization (Shively and Sununtnasuk) or women’s empowerment (Malapit et al.).

“Farm-Level Pathways to Improved Nutritional Status,” Journal of Development Studies, 2015, 51:8.

Table of Contents:
Farm-Level Pathways to Improved Nutritional Status: Introduction to the Special IssueGero Carletto, Marie Ruel, Paul Winters, and Alberto Zezza

Cows, Missing Milk Markets, and Nutrition in Rural Ethiopia: John Hoddinott, Derek Headey, and Mekdim Dereje

Agricultural Production, Dietary Diversity and Climate Variability: Andrew Dillon, Kevin McGee, and Gbemisola Osen

Programme Participation Intensity and Children’s Nutritional Status: Evidence from a Randomised Control Trial in Mozambique: Alan de Brauw, Patrick Eozenou, and Mourad Moursi

Agricultural Production and the Nutritional Status of Family Members in Tanzania: Vanya Slavchevska

Does Livestock Ownership Affect Animal Source Foods Consumption and Child Nutritional Status? Evidence from Rural Uganda: Carlo Azzarri, Alberto Zezza, Beliyou Haile, and Elizabeth Cross

If They Grow It, Will They Eat and Grow? Evidence from Zambia on Agricultural Diversity and Child Undernutrition: Neha Kumar, Jody Harris, and Rahul Rawat

Agricultural Diversity and Child Stunting in Nepal: Gerald Shively and Celeste Sununtnasuk

Women’s Empowerment Mitigates the Negative Effects of Low Production Diversity on Maternal and Child Nutrition in Nepal: Hazel Jean L. Malapit, Suneetha Kadiyala, Agnes R. Quisumbing, Kenda Cunningham, and Parul Tyagi