While the role of agriculture has been recognised as a supplier of food in the past, very little attention has been reportedly paid on its role in the mitigation of malnutrition. It is thus no wonder that Bangladesh has been caught in the quagmire of "Asian Enigma," where food surplus exists alongside the nutritional deficit. Keeping in mind that we should search for belongings at the place where the boat had capsized, ideas emerged while revisiting the role of agriculture in the improvement of nutrition. At present, Bangladesh has one of the highest incidences of child stunting and underweight, although the proportions appreciably declined over time. For this reason, leveraging agriculture for nutrition assumes especial importance.
A major project relating to research on the nexus between agriculture and nutrition has recently been completed. It assumed that supply of food did not necessarily translate into consumption of food, and food consumption (say, staple food) does not necessarily result in nutritional improvement. Titled 'Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia' (LANSA), the project was funded by the UK-aid for four countries - Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan - where malnutrition has been massive despite impressive food production. MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) served as the cockpit of coordination. LANSA revolved round three thematic pillars: Enabling environment - what are the barriers, facilitators and how to bridge major bottlenecks; Agro-food and value chains - how can you make agro-food policies and value chains more nutrition sensitive; and Nutrition-sensitive agriculture - how agricultural interventions can be designed to improve nutritional status. However, the pillars were pitted against cross-cutting themes of gender, innovation system and fragility in the wake of the existing diversity that seemingly negates a 'one size fits all' solution.
Readers could be reminded of the pathways through which agriculture is connected with nutrition. For example, first, agriculture tends to serve as a source of food and income; second, agricultural policy and food prices, to a great extent, determines both quality and quantity of consumption bundles; third, women has a role in agriculture, intra-household decision making and resource allocation, maternal employment in agriculture, and child care and feeding; and finally, women in agriculture, maternal nutrition and health status also play pivotal roles.
In the concluding seminar of LANSA held recently in Dhaka, Barnali Chakraborty kicked off the discussion with a summary of the findings from LANSA studies. Malnutrition is pervasive in haor and coastal areas because of backwardness in both infrastructure and modern technology. Agricultural diversity leads to dietary variety possibly indicating that agricultural policy needs to shift focus from mono-cropping to multi-cropping system thorough infrastructure and incentive schemes. Production-oriented agriculture has varying impacts on nutritional outcomes, such as anaemia, blindness etc. There is a knowledge gap on the role of women in intra-household resource allocation and other non-food and nutrition-related investment. Also, knowledge gaps exist about spending of agricultural income for nutritional improvements at household level.
.Lalita Bhattacharjee, a Senior nutritionist of FAO, highlighted the policies and programmes and the lessons learned from various Bangladeshi projects supported by her organization. The lessons to drive home are as follows: (a) importance of horticulture, livestock and aquaculture for production and consumption diversification, healthy, sustainable diets; (b) introduction of nutrition education and cooking demonstrations, focusing on household and women's dietary diversity, complimentary feeding, healthy cooking, and (c) adoption of appropriate processing technologies. These are linked to national food and nutrition policies and the first Country Investment Plan for agriculture. She also mentioned that malnutrition remained as a menace to both upper and lower quartile of wealth groups. Lalita put forth some recommendations in the fight against malnutrition, such as (i) engaging national and local governments to work simultaneously on policy, capacity strengthening and action on the ground; (ii) embedding nutrition-sensitive agriculture through multi-sectoral collaboration; (iii) monitoring and evaluation of shortage of funds for investment; (iv) harmonization, data exchange and monitoring of nutrition outcomes and impact; (v) need for evidence/research and tools to inform and improve policy.
Imran Matin, the Chair of the session and Executive Director of BRAC Institute for Governance and Development (BIGD), raised some pertinent points in his concluding remarks. Admitting that there has been improvement in nutritional status over time, the progress has been relatively slow compared to others. Matin reckons that the main challenge is to accelerate the pace, and not to bear with business as usual scenario. What is needed is a game of fostering steepness in the reduction of malnutrition. Apparently, LANSA has been a diagnostic type of study searching for causalities and consequences of malnutrition, but now the time seems to be ripe for interventions; and those interventions are needed based on robust empirical analyses.
Agriculture matters, pathways are powerful but three things have to be focussed on: the role of information, the role of incentives and the role of behaviour. Nutrition is primarily a behavioural outcome, and we need information and incentive to change behaviour. Bangladesh is undergoing massive changes, but one of the big changes yet to come is in the area of hardcore malnutrition with a focus on less favourable areas and economically disadvantaged groups. Finally, technology has a major role to play as the game changer. Digitalisation needs to be emphasized in the whole chain of policy to practice, farm to fork, and research to realities on the ground.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, and now an Adjunct Faculty, East West University.
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