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Making Agriculture Work for Nutrition

World goals

The meeting focused on a big goal: Zero Hunger. It also focused on the role of agriculture in driving progress on the United Nation’s 2nd Sustainable Development Goal (or SDG). During this May meeting one key message was clear: progress is being made on reducing hunger. However, focus is needed on nutrition at a household scale in many parts of the world.

Co-run by key organisations in the field—including KIT Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), ICCO Cooperation and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation—the meeting is part of a bigger trend. But to get full insight into it we need to jump back to December’s previous working group meeting. Held at KIT, a glue-point for other organisations, the role of nutrition in development was also considered and shows the increase in local focus. It also comes on the heels of the recently published KIT report Enhancing the Effectiveness of Agriculture-to-Nutrition Pathways. This collective work is showing some clear ways to reduce a complex problem, but one that requires numerous steps.

Ways forward, or sideways?

What may at first sound just like a bunch of meetings and bits of paper being passed around, on closer inspection reveals a new trend related to hunger and nutrition. Dr. Marie Ruel, Director of the Poverty, Health and Nutrition Division of the International Food Policy Research Institute recently summed it up at the May meeting in her key-note address. She highlighted that the collective work is showing the strength of project design. Agricultural development programs that contribute to better nutrition as part of their project design are much more successful.

Such interventions are commonly referred to as “nutrition-sensitive agriculture.” They typically span a variety of sectors, such as health, agriculture and education. But there is a catch. One consequence of their broad span of sectors is that nutrition-focused agriculture programmes can be highly complex.

“Boosting agricultural productivity does not necessarily lead to improvements in household or individual nutrition,” said Noortje Verhart, KIT Senior Policy Advisor. “So it’s increasingly recognised that a multi-sector approach is needed to fight malnutrition. But this complexity can also make it difficult to apply standardised frameworks to evaluate and monitor the impact of nutrition-sensitive agriculture programmes.” That in turn makes understanding what does and does not work—and using that to inform project design—a problem in itself.

Improving the link between agriculture and nutrition

If you can’t figure out the impact of a programme, you have a problem. A big problem; it’s impossible to tell what works and what doesn’t. That issue is complicated in this field because agriculture can impact nutritional outcomes in a variety of ways. One common example is that farming may yield a greater diversity of food available for a household to consume. Or, by selling their harvest at market, a family may generate more income, which allows them to purchase and consume more nutritious foods. But these ‘agriculture-to-nutrition pathways’ impact men and women differently. That insight—simple as it may seem—is a key to understanding a complex problem, and forms the theoretical and operational backbone of most nutrition-sensitive agriculture programmes.

As a step forward in trying to solve the problem of measuring impact, KIT recently published Enhancing the Effectiveness of Agriculture-to-Nutrition Pathways. Among other aspects, the report focuses on how women’s empowerment and household dynamics influence the links between agriculture and nutrition. “Women occupy a key role at the nexus of agriculture, nutrition and health,’ said Julie Newton, KIT Senior Policy Advisor, who participated as a speaker in the working group’s plenary session. “As a result, we can achieve impact on both women’s empowerment and nutrition by implementing more gender aware designs in agricultural programmes which match the goals of gender integration strategies.”

Gender & the importance of households

Agriculture-to-nutrition pathways refer to six mechanisms or relationships that modern scientists see as the ways in which nutrition can be impacted by agriculture. Three of the recognised agriculture-to-nutrition pathways specifically relate to women’s empowerment. They emphasise how women’s roles and status, time and workloads need to be considered in nutrition-sensitive agriculture programme design, implementation and evaluation. However, a key takeaway from KIT’s report is that such pathways cannot be viewed in isolation; they constantly interact with other pathways. They also influence men and women differently at separate levels of analysis.

With this in mind, KIT’s research highlights the importance of examining nutrition-sensitive agriculture programmes at the household level, where the link between actual food availability and consumption is—or importantly is not—being made. The research shows that ignoring household dynamics risks reinforcing assumptions of how women’s empowerment works. That means perpetuating preconceived ideas of the roles of men and women without engaging with women’s own voices and interpretations of what matters to them.

Goals for goals

Leveraging reliable indicators for programme evaluation is also crucial. It begins with a clear definition of women’s empowerment in the design phase of a nutrition-sensitive agriculture initiative. It also means understanding how it evolves along different pathways of change.

Hazel Malapit, Senior Research Coordinator at IFPRI’s Poverty, Health and Nutrition Division, echoes this conclusion. She led a workshop dedicated to women’s empowerment indicators during the meeting, along with Julie Newton and Noorjte Verhart from KIT. Hazel Malapit emphasised that the absence of a clear definition of goals for nutrition-sensitive agriculture interventions integrating gender into their programmes can be a big problem. It runs the high risk of impact-evaluation designs reinforcing assumptions about women. In particular, how women’s empowerment contributes to nutrition, and essentially, we learn nothing while making the same mistakes. She also emphasised the importance of aligning project goals with relevant gender integration strategies. These then need to be aligned with the appropriate indicators, and taken together the elusive goal of effectively tracking complex processes of change finally becomes clear.

The road ahead

Using the project level Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (pro-WEAI) is one way to ensure consistent evaluation of such programmes’ contribution to women’s empowerment. It also still allows for flexibility in assessing the specific context of each programme. Meanwhile for millions of women around the globe basic access to nutritious food remains an issue. But for those trying to support the creation of women’s empowerment through nutrition sensitive agriculture, clearing confusion and moving into clear and measurable programmes offers good evidence that we can, and should hope for more successful, lasting changes.

More about the NWGN

The NWGN was formed in 2008, and is dedicated to promoting the inclusion of nutrition specific and nutrition sensitive development policies and strategies. It is comprised of a broad spectrum of Dutch stakeholders from across the public and private sector, including: the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vrij Unversiteit Amsterdam, Save the Children, UNICEF, UN World Food Programme NL, Wageningen University, and KIT Royal Tropical Institute, among others. The NWGN provides a crucial forum to share knowledge and identify new ways to maximize the impact of future NSA interventions.

More about the Food and Business Knowledge Platform

The Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP) is the gateway to knowledge for Food and Nutrition Security. F&BKP act as knowledge brokers, connecting people and networks in business, science, civil society and policy to (co-)create, exchange and use knowledge for inclusive and ecologically sustainable food systems.