In visiting with African families, Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the foundation, repeatedly witnesses the constant struggle by mothers to ensure that their children have adequate nutrition. In today’s world there is often a disconnect between the production of food and the consumption of food, but Melinda, as a mother herself, is struck by the fundamental connection between healthier food and healthier children.
It’s that intersection – delivering good food for the best nutritious outcome – that brings the Nutrition and Agriculture teams at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation together. We were glad to see the world hearing this message on an Olympic stage as UK Prime Minister David Cameron hosted an event on the closing day of the Olympic Games, 12 August, focused on tackling child undernutrition. We heartily support the UK call to action to the global community – private sector, civil society and governments, to ensure that we’re on track to reduce the number of stunted children by 40 per cent by 2025.
Agriculture and nutrition are deeply intertwined. Not only does increasing agricultural productivity have the potential to improve rural families’ nutrition, but healthier and better-nourished farmers are more productive, earn more income, and contribute to further economic growth.
Nutrition influences all aspects of life – women who are undernourished during pregnancy have a higher risk of pregnancy and childbirth complications and delivering low birth weight babies, who in turn are at a higher risk of illness as well as physical and cognitive impairments that limit their future opportunities and economic productivity later in life. And undernutrition is an underlying cause of an estimated one-third of all child deaths in developing countries.
Because of this inextricable link between these two issues, we recently developed a position paper that describes why and how the agriculture and nutrition strategies of the foundation intersect, highlighting ways that we will work together in the future to make complementary investments in order to improve the lives’ and health of families in developing countries.
A few basic insights from the work of our partners have shaped our views:
- Food consumption does not necessarily equate with good nutrition; good nutrition depends more on having a diverse and adequate diet, being healthy and free of parasites or other illnesses which may limit the absorption of nutrients, and good healthcare practices, such as washing hands with soap.
- There is a window of 1,000 days from conception to the child’s second birthday when nutrition improvements are particularly critical. This is the time when children need an adequate and nutritious diet to ensure healthy growth and development of strong cognitive abilities to become thriving, productive adults.
- Women are at the center of agriculture, nutrition and health; increasing women’s income is likely to have a proportionally greater impact on children’s health, nutrition and educational opportunities, than comparable increases in men’s income.
- Agricultural-led income growth has been an important driver of nutritional improvements in many countries; but there are several countries where this relationship has not held, and we need to find out why. For example, in India, despite economic growth, the country is home to about half of the world’s undernourished, Women’s status, health, control of economic resources, and decision-making about nutrition and feeding practices all play a mediating role.
How will the agriculture and nutrition teams at the Gates Foundation put this knowledge into practice? We envision several areas for collaboration and complementary investments, and welcome your feedback to advance improvements in both agriculture and nutrition in low-resource countries.
Through collaboration, we aim to build awareness of the importance and efficacy of food-based strategies to improve nutrition, including support for biofortification as a way to improve access to micronutrients that otherwise would not be available. In communities, integrated behaviour change strategies will deliver nutrition education alongside agricultural education in interactions with farmers.
Nutritional outcomes will be measured in select agricultural investments, and we will support research that draws linkages – and highlights disconnects – between agricultural outcomes and improved nutrition. Our strategy supports research to delve into how agricultural interventions can be designed to improve nutrition outcomes.
And finally, our collaborative efforts aim to increase attention to and support of collaborations between agriculture and nutrition communities in policy-making and policy planning at the national level.
Combating undernutrition requires contributions from many sectors, including both nutrition and agriculture. We are pleased to share our thinking with all our partners and welcome feedback.
Find out more about this integrated approach here, and please feel free to comment on this site.
Gary Darmstadt leads the Family Health division of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sam Dryden is director of the Agricultural Development initiative and Ellen Piwoz is senior program officer of the Nutrition team. This article was first published on the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog.