Food for Thought: Do Agricultural Innovations Improve Our Health?

SF BreakOut 1_05 copy The Science Forum 2013 in Bonn, Germany, Discusses the Links between Agriculture and Health and how they can be Improved Imagine for a moment that you're a small-scale farmer from a poor region and you grow a number of crops. Some of the crops you sell for cash which you probably use to purchase other foods you don't grow yourself, or to pay for other family expenses. The food you don't sell, you eat. But you later decide to start growing a high-yielding cotton variety with a good market demand. Your new choice in crop brings you greater income which you then use to purchase a wider range of healthier, more nutritious foods that you may not have had access to before. Such a scenario makes sense, unless you consider the contradicting evidence currently coming from research in China. (read more) Richer Wallets, Poorer Plates Recent research from western China conducted by a team of researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has shown that despite rapid growth in economy and agricultural production, over half of school children in the region suffer from anemia, with a large portion also being iron deficient. Such facts are startling given that the country boasts a 3-4% growth in agricultural productivity, which is a relatively high statistic and one that Linxiu Zhang, a scientist involved with the study, describes as impressive. As Zhang presented her slideshow at this year's Science Forum in Bonn, Germany, she went on to mention that malnutrition of this degree and at such a young age can have significant lifelong effects on physical and cognitive development. Improved nutrition at critical times has proven that it can largely contribute to improved livelihoods over, not only the short term, but individuals' entire lifetimes, according to research presented by Zhang. She showed, citing a recent study, that adequate nutrition at a young age leads to improvements in physical and mental growth of children, thus leading to increases in their school attainment and to increases in income later on in their adult life. This kind of information and the benefits of adequate nutrition are rarely disputed, but a more difficult question remains: how can agriculture and agricultural research contribute to improved nutrition? The easy answer to this question would be, "well, it depends". But the participants of this year's Science Forum, which chose to focus solely on the topic of agriculture's role in nutrition and health, came together to discuss ways forward for research, not to settle on known discrepancies. It's the Little Things that Count As Matin Qaim, professor for Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at the University of Goettingen, pointed out, agricultural innovations, depending on what they actually are, can influence nutrition and health in a number of ways. Agricultural innovations can have an effect on, not only food quantity, in other words helping to increase production, but also in the quality and diversity of the food being produced. While at the same time, indirect effects on nutrition and health can also stem from agricultural innovations not necessarily related to food crops but which nonetheless help to increase household incomes. But such assertions depend largely on context. For example, some studies show that increases in income and productivity growth do not correlate into an increase in nutrition and health for that population, just as the study in western China demonstrated. Such a notion can perhaps be partially attributed to a narrow focus on the increases in the intake of calories. Calories and their increased intake, although beneficial, do not necessarily alleviate deficiencies in important micronutrients, a point Zhang also attempted to stress, stating that if micronutrient deficiencies are not corrected in the first 30 months after birth, their negative effects are largely irreversible. So what can be done to improve the nutrition and health of people, and more specifically, help increase their intake of micronutrient rich foods? Putting Knowledge on the Table Connect smallholder farmers to markets and focus nutrition and health programs on women of child-bearing age, says Prahbu Pingali of Cornell University. Connecting smallholder farmers to markets is a win-win situation, helping to increase incomes of farmers while stabilizing relative prices for non-staple crops, such as pulses and vegetables, which are normally more expensive yet rich in micronutrients. Focusing nutrition and health programs on women of child-bearing age is also a strategic maneuver, because a healthy mother will have a healthy conception and thus a healthy baby, as Pingali put it. Nevertheless, a wide range of comments from scientists at the Forum also gave way to suggestions such as that an increase in smallholders' market access can increase the diversity and nutritional quality of their diets, because when markets exist for healthy non-staples, people grow them, and coincidentally consume them -- or so the argument goes. Increases in infrastructure, such as improved transportation and storage, and encouragement of private sector investment were also suggested as having positive impacts on agriculture's contribution to improved health. The suggestions and possible solutions are numerous and it is clear that agricultural innovations have been offered which at least answer part of a problem, or a specific instance or scenario. Perhaps this is why, as Zhang mentioned, that devising agricultural innovations and then assessing how effective they can be for improved nutrition is important but can also be misleading. Therefore, we should instead flip the process around and design agricultural research to first address and answer the biggest problems. Then we will perhaps be able to devise more applicable solutions, thus helping to satiate the minds of scientists and researchers as well as the bodies of the under-nourished.


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