More to be done on food and nutrition front

Abdul Bayes | Published: March 08, 2019 22:11:18

For a pretty long time, agriculture as a navigator to improved nutrition took a back seat in the minds of academics. There has not been much research as to how agriculture and agricultural food systems, policies and strategies can be better designed to reduce malnutrition. The idea was that an increase in food supply would itself foster nutritional advancement. However, the bitter experience of extraordinary economic growth with massive malnutrition in Bangladesh and elsewhere brought the issue to limelight

In recent attempts two eminent scientists seemingly have risen to reinforce the argument with evidences from Bangladesh that agriculture is leading but nutrition is lagging. "Agriculture, Nutrition and the Green Revolution in Bangladesh" is an interesting and insightful article written by Derek D. Headey and John Hoddinott of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Cornell University, respectively. The paper appeared in the Agricultural Systems very recently (Elsevier 2016).

As we are aware, the impacts of the Green Revolution (henceforth GR) in Bangladesh have been documented from different angles by different researchers at home and abroad.  Mostly led by late Mahabub Hossain, the researches carried out so far revealed positive impacts of GR such as self-sufficiency in rice led by increased yield, improved calorie consumption of households, employment, net returns, food security etc. By and large, GR is believed to have paved ways for poverty reduction in Bangladesh. However, pessimists point out the adverse micronutrient consequences of reduced biodiversity in mono-cropping systems, lower consumption of pulses, coarse grains and fish and also to the harmful health and nutritional impacts of excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides. To them, the green is overshadowed by the grey. By and large, the pros and cons raised by both groups bypassed the most important issue of examining the impacts of growth in cereal yields on changes in individual nutrition outcomes or diets. This knowledge gap, according to Derek and Hoddinott, exists "because the Green Revolutions of the 1960s, 1970s and1980s largely preceded the kinds of large, multi-topic surveys that are typically a prerequisite for identifying the welfare impacts of large-scale interventions".

This paper by Derek and Hoddinott seeks to fill this knowledge gap by exploring the nutritional impacts of rice productivity growth in Bangladesh. They reckon that Bangladesh is an ideal case study for several reasons paraphrased as follows. First, Bangladesh was a relatively late adopter of Green Revolution technologies, meaning that much of its productivity growth occurred during more recent periods of improved statistical surveillance. From 1997 to 2011 (the period of analysis) yield growth for rice averaged 3.6 per cent per annum on the back of increased adoption of improved varieties and the rapid expansion of the irrigated dry season rice crop. Second, productivity growth in Bangladesh coincided with substantial improvements in preschooler nutritional status. In 1996/97, rates of preschooler stunting (height-for-age Z scores b ?2) and mild wasting (weight-for-height Z scores b ?1) were 53 and 54 per cent respectively. In this paper the authors made the rare attempt - and for which our interest to this article rests - to  explore the links between rapid productivity growth in rice production, dietary diversification and changes in the world at that time, although by 2011 rates of moderate stunting and mild wasting had both fallen to around 40 per cent. Third, Bangladesh has a relatively rich array of nutritional and agricultural data; the dearth of such data has undoubtedly been a constraint to exploring the impacts of agricultural growth on nutrition in other Green Revolution countries.

The authors tend to show that diets in Bangladesh are remarkably undiversified, and have only diversified slowly during this period of rapid rice intensification. They also find that increases in rice yields have large and statistically significant associations with child weight gain. This phenomenon could be at least partially explained by increased food consumption for young children, particularly the timelier introduction of complementary foods in the critical early window of child development. They are of the view that this potential impact of yields on child weight gain is important 'bonus' for Bangladesh as the country still has one of the highest rates of child wasting in the world. But it is also somewhat disappointing that they "were unable to detect any benefit from increasing rice yields on child growth outcomes empirical tests may not be granular enough to unravel the complex dynamic linkages between yields and linear growth in young children, both our descriptive and econometric evidence does suggest that this may be explained by the very limited dietary diversification in Bangladesh"

The results from the research by the authors drive home few potentially important policy implications, though further evidence is still needed to corroborate the linkages hypothesized in this paper. First, they provide strong evidence that delays in the introduction of complementary foods - and most likely, in adequate calorie intake of children-are related to low levels of agricultural productivity and household economic status (assets). Hence, public investments in staple food production would appear to be an important tool for overcoming those constraints, in addition to safety net programmes for poor households, as well as the kinds of behavioral change communications programmes typically favoured by nutritionists for the improvement of complementary feeding.

Second, it is clear from different types of data that diets have diversified very little over a period of rapid productivity growth in the main food staple. A major challenge in Bangladesh is to understand the constraints to dietary diversification, and policy options for accelerating diversification. Examples of potential policy levers include a reorientation of Bangladesh's agricultural R&D portfolio towards more micronutrient rich crops and livestock products, an increased focus on diversifying production via agricultural extension programmes, behavioral change and communication interventions to nudge parents into healthier feeding practices, nutrition-sensitive social safety nets to improve the purchasing power of the poorest households (perhaps conditional upon participation in nutritional programmes), and interventions to alleviate the many marketing bottlenecks that inhibit both domestic production and domestic and international trade of perishable nutrient-rich foods in particular (e.g. lack of cold storage, inadequate infrastructure, regulatory burdens to trade). "Assessing the effectiveness of these types of policies and programs in accelerating diversification towards healthier and more nutrient-rich diets would seem to be an important area for future research."

But admittedly, things have positively changed over time and the government of Bangladesh has taken agro-nutrition nexus into serious consideration. Agricultural, Food and Health Ministries, with the help of IFPRI and other international research and donor agencies embarked on establishing a robust link between agriculture and nutrition. As a result we observe a change in the policy palliatives as far as the linkage between agriculture and nutrition is concerned. A more rigorous research and robust policy matrix should be on board to create a healthy nation empowered by the power of productivity.

Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar


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