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Agriculture must be nutrition sensitive

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LARGELY PRIORITISED—Maize production

By Dyson Mthawanji:

Nutrition is a pre-requisite for human growth and development and an integral element for the social and economic development of a country.

Adequate nutrition is critical for physical and intellectual development of an individual and is a major determinant of one’s intellectual performance, academic and professional achievement and overall work productivity at later stages in life.

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This directly and indirectly influences potential future gains and economic contributions of the individual to the nation.

It is from this background that agriculture needs to be nutrition-sensitive. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture is an approach that seeks to maximise agriculture’s contribution to nutrition.

Nutrition-sensitive agriculture also entails targeting poor households, promoting gender equity and providing nutrition education so that household resources are used to improve household members’ nutrition, especially that of women and young children.

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It also involves linking agriculture to sectors that address other causes of malnutrition, namely, education, health and social protection.

Efforts are being made to improve agriculture. However, for a long time, these efforts have been on ensuring that households are food secure. This is an old fashioned approach to agriculture as, many times, this concentrated on one crop only.

For example, many households are found in a situation where they have enough maize to take them throughout the year but they do not have other forms of food such as legumes and vegetables.

This has led to undernutrition in many households. Undernutrition is a serious health and development challenge in Malawi. According to the 2014 Multiple Indicator Survey, 37.1 percent of children aged between six and 59 months are stunted.

The Government of Malawi developed the first National Nutrition Policy in 2007, whose overall goal was to have a well–nourished nation with sound human resource that effectively contributes to economic growth and prosperity.

The first policy recognised malnutrition as a disorder with social, cultural, economic, development, political and biomedical dimensions.

Government has renewed its commitment and strategic response to nutrition-related issues by reviewing the National Nutrition Policy, which is multi-sectoral and covers both nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions.

The multi-sector Nutrition Policy (2018-2022) serves to realign national nutrition priorities with national development agenda.

The causes of malnutrition are multi-faceted, which require multi-sectoral approach, coordination and implementation platforms with clear terms of reference at all levels.

Therefore, the reviewed policy came at a right time in as far as the much-needed joint efforts to improve nutrition-sensitive agriculture is concerned.

While stakeholders are promoting nutrition-sensitive agriculture, it is important to note that it is difficult for rural and illiterate farmers to easily adopt this new form of agriculture.

The stakeholders distribute printed materials with information about nutrition and agriculture. However, illiterate farmers cannot grasp this important information. Therefore, it is important to marry Adult Learning and Education (ALE) with agriculture.

There should be a mental shift in the way Malawi views agriculture. Modern agriculture encompasses more than just cereal crop production—from horticulture to forestry and fisheries.

Agriculture should be seen not only as a means to an end, but as an essential process for improving the quality of foods available to the community and ensuring healthy soils and ecosystems for farming in the future.

Malawi’s food systems are rapidly transforming; there is an increasing reliance on purchased and processed foods even in rural areas.

While agriculture modernisation and greater market integration is associated with decreased levels of undernutrition, there is also a worldwide increase in overweight and diet-related chronic disease such as diabetes while deficiencies in vitamins and minerals remain unacceptably high.

It is, therefore, urgent to place the promotion of healthy diets and nutrition at the heart of agriculture policies and programmes.

Instead of focusing exclusively on cash crops to be sold on the market, rural farmers can use their land to cultivate a variety of commodities, including fruits, vegetables and small livestock like chicken.

This can improve household food security, nutrition and the economic status of the family and the community.

For many households, agriculture is also a key source of income which can be used to purchase a wider assortment of foods as well as access healthcare and clean water, for example.

Investing in home-grown school feeding programmes will support smallholder farmers by giving them a guaranteed market, but also encourage the proliferation of crops and foods that will be nutritionally beneficial to children.

This requires Malawi to improve its indicators and create measurement systems that give an accurate picture of how agriculture affects diets, and then use this information to drive policy change.

Programmes should focus more on prevention of all forms of malnutrition and nutrition should be incorporated into agricultural investment plans to ensure that there is a dedicated budget for nutrition-sensitive initiatives.

Nutrition must be incorporated into all aspects of the value chain – starting with nutrient-rich soils that will improve the quality of crops, and extending across the food system to other elements like food safety, food processing, food fortification and proper food preparation and consumption in households.

Food processing is essential for making nutritionally rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products, available year round.

It can also reduce food preparation time, and thus—like other labour-saving technologies—enable women to spend more time caring for their children, namely to breastfeed.

Nutrition education initiatives that explain which food combinations will provide essential vitamins and minerals can have a big impact as well.

Furthermore, adult literacy classes should be promoted because they are a good foundation for the farmers’ understanding of agricultural information.

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