UK hosts meeting to highlight agricultural innovations that deliver improved nutrition for women and children. Tim Wheeler reports.

Tim Wheeler

On 12 August 2012, the last day of the London Olympic Games, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron will bring together government, business and civil society leaders to define a set of actions to reduce global hunger and undernutrition rates. He will seek to gather support for a global legacy for the London Games, looking ahead to the next Games in Rio in 2016. Ensuring that the growing global population can be fed sustainably and equitably is an unprecedented challenge for the global food system and the UN Secretary General recently pressed the global community to act with urgency on hunger.

The Global Hunger Event aims to secure increased global political commitment and action to tackle undernutrition through three linked activities. First, to stimulate greater efforts by the private sector to improve the access by poor people in poor countries to nutritious foods. Second, to scale-up the uptake and spread of agricultural innovations that deliver improved food and nutrition security in poor countries. And third, to strengthen the ability of the global community to hold governments, donors, civil society and others accountable for their actions on hunger and undernutrition.

A particular focus of the event is on innovations in agriculture. The agriculture sector is the major employer in many poor countries and there is mounting global interest in identifying ways to stimulate agricultural development as a means of enhancing economic development as well as food and nutrition security.

However, the links between agriculture and nutrition are complex. There is potential for well-developed and functioning agriculture sectors to play a critical role in enhancing population health and nutritional status. A well-developed agriculture sector may enhance food and nutrition security directly through increased consumption of nutritious foods or indirectly through increased incomes at farmer and national level. In turn, better nutrition and health of farmers increases their agricultural and economic productivity. But agriculture can also carry risks to nutrition and health outcomes, through agriculture-related diseases such as avian flu.

Food, health and wealth

The evidence base on the effects of agriculture on nutrition is still not fully developed. A recent DFID-funded systematic review of the evidence (PDF) linking agricultural interventions with nutritional outcomes in children living in farming households found that many studies to date that have investigated the link between agriculture and nutrition have been small-scale, covered a short time-scale and used relatively weak study designs. Given the real potential for nutritional benefits to result from agricultural innovations and practices, there is an urgent need to more fully demonstrate the links between agriculture and nutrition using robust scientific methods.

Nonetheless, there are a number of exciting opportunities for action in promoting agricultural development with a focus on improving nutrition – from initiatives to increase the yields of crop or their resilience to adverse climate events – to more direct interventions such as the promotion of home food gardens and small-scale animal husbandry to increase the diversity of household diets (which is known to be important for health).

One intervention which has great potential to improve nutritional outcomes is biofortification: enhancing the nutritional composition of staple food crops through conventional selective breeding methods. Many years of research investment from the UK government into a global research collaboration spearheaded by the Harvest Plus programme of the CGIAR are now paying off with the release of iron-rich beans in Rwanda in 2012; vitamin A-rich maize in Zambia; iron-rich pearl millet in India, and vitamin A-rich cassava in Nigeria. By the end of 2014, rice and wheat varieties which are high in zinc will have been released in Bangladesh and India, respectively. And what’s more, there is now growing evidence that when farmers grow these enhanced crops it increases consumption by women and children of some essential nutrients – exactly the desired outcome that may have critical health benefits in poor communities.

The wide scale roll-out of agricultural innovations such as nutritionally improved staple crops, as well as innovative crop protection systems and methods to reduce the transmission of disease from crops and animals to humans, presents us with an opportunity to change the lives of millions of undernourished children and women. But the roll-out is not without its challenges and the Global Hunger Event will provide an excellent opportunity for the global community to commit to act decisively.

About Tim Wheeler

Professor Tim Wheeler is Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK Department for International Development. He is on secondment from the University of Reading where he is Professor of Crop Science. Professor Wheeler has published more than 160 scientific publications over the last 20 years on how climate change could impact on the sustainability of agriculture and food. He has provided advice on the sustainability of food and farming to agri-businesses and food multi-nationals, often up to board level. He has extensive experience of working with policy-makers in the UK and internationally: providing evidence and advice to ministers and acting as Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords in 2010. In 2005 he gave the prestigious Royal Society Public Lecture on ‘Growing crops in a changing climate‘. Professor Wheeler is a member of the BBSRC Council.

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