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Agriculture Experts Extol Nutrition as Goal in Farming

  • Anjana Pasricha

Indian laborers load bags of onions onto a truck in Hyderabad, India ( 2010 file photo)

Indian laborers load bags of onions onto a truck in Hyderabad, India ( 2010 file photo)

More than 900 farm, health and nutrition experts from over 60 countries have gathered in the Indian capital, New Delhi, to discuss how agriculture can help meet the needs of the world's poor people. The experts are calling on nations to incorporate health and nutrition as a goal in farming.

Nearly one billion people, or one-sixth of the world's population, goes hungry every day. The number of malnourished people is even higher. Food prices are spiraling in many countries. And in many parts of the world, climate change is impacting agricultural productivity.

These are the key challenges highlighted by experts in New Delhi at a conference on "Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health" organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute.

David Nabarro, the United Nations special representative on food security, says the massive food price hikes in 2008 focused attention on what he called "structural defects in world agriculture systems."

"Food production and distribution does not really reflect what humans need to eat and instead tends to reflect more what farmers and larger food buying and selling organizations want to make money from," said Nabarro.

The conference is calling on policy makers to incorporate nutrition in farming. Nabarro says increasing farm productivity alone will not address the problems of malnourishment as farmers tend to grow more crops like wheat and rice rather than fruits, vegetables or dairy products.

"We have abundant evidence that a major contributor to the high levels of under nutrition that remain in Asian, in African and even Latin American societies are due to the inadequate consumption of nutrients by people in all walks of life, not just the poor," added Nabarro. "And one of the reasons is that agriculture has tended to focus on the production of staple products that are easy to develop and store, and not on high-nutrient value products that are much harder to store and more perishable."

Experts are calling on countries to expand programs that add vitamins and minerals to crops to address common nutritional deficiencies.

Shenggen Fan, the director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, says farmers should be encouraged to grow crops with higher levels of micronutrients like Vitamin A and iron.

"Bio-fortification or fortified food is one of the options in improving humans health and nutrition," noted Fan. "One of the innovative approaches is through breeding, you can bring micro-nutrients to crops. So you are not only going to grow more food, more crops, but more nutritious crops."

Experts want farmers to be given incentives to grow the food the world needs. To do this, more investment is needed in the 500 million small farmers across the world who do not have money to produce high-value crops.

For example, says Indian agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, Indian farmers with small plots of land prefer to grow wheat and rice, because the government buys these crops after they are harvested, assuring them of a cash income.

"For them income security is very important," Swaminathan explained. "The smaller the farm the greater the need for marketable surplus, otherwise they won't have any money. What they do, they see where they can optimize the income from that unit of land they possess."

Experts say better storage and transport for crops after they are harvested will improve nutrition and health. They say nations must see agriculture as more than a food producing machine as it is linked to people's well being in many ways.