Putting the Farm back in Pharmacy

Food production is one thing, but nutrient production is an entirely different field, and in this case the more fields the more diverse the crop. With all the talk about food security, our discussions need to also pay close attention to nutrition. Herrero calls for a move away from the kilocalorie perspective of measuring food security, to a broader approach which recognise the interconnectedness of agriculture and health. Nutrition sensitive agricultural development is the next step in ensuring food security (as nutrition security), highlighting an increasing interconnectedness between agriculture, health and the environment. This week we take a look at the fine line between agricultural production and health, as outlined in the Crawford Fund Conference last week. Head over here to find more articles inspired by the conference.

A farm is a farm, right?

Well, no. An important distinction needs to be made between food as something which is consumed, and food as a commodity. Before we can even begin understanding food security, it’s important we recognise where food is produced, and where it is consumed. Perhaps this may also help explain why the majority of the world’s malnourished are smallholder farmers.

Farms in many developed nations produce ‘food’ – a commodity which can be exchanged at markets for income, which can then be exchanged for other food products, which then forms a person’s diet. But, subsistence farmers have an extra task at hand – they must also produce the full range of essential nutrients to support their communities’ and families’ health. Farms in many parts of the world, are also the local preventative health pharmacy.

Dr Lindiwe Sibanda (Vice President for Country Support, Policy, and Delivery, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and Member, Policy Advisory Council, ACIAR) describes the “rainbow colours of maize, sweet sorghum, large mango trees, lemon trees, guavas” of her grandmothers’ farm that she experienced growing up, which nourished her family with a great spectrum of nutrients (read our summary article here). But upon returning to her grandmother’s farm, after time studying overseas, the full spectrum of fruits, vegetables and grains had been replaced by a whole field of monoculture maize. In the traditional view of development agriculture, there was no time for low-value crops, even if they were an essential part of the communities’ diet. The agenda of food security had shifted to modernisation and intensification, instead of acknowledging the importance of diversification.

This understanding of food security is reminiscent of the original idea of food security as conceptualised in the 1970s as food supply on the production side. But, fast-forward to today’s world, we must redefine our understanding of food security to also include food demand, with a more wholesome approach from the consumption side. Agriculture has an important role beyond just filling the stomachs of the world’s population, but nourishing the population for health, as food or lack of a variety of food is clearly the cause of many health issues.

Whilst it may be true that we need to increase food production by 70% to meet global food demands by 2050, we need to be careful that increases come in the form of both quantity and quality. In responding to issues of food security, policy makers must ensure a diverse toolkit is used to address the interlinkages of agriculture to health and the environment. The first step to this is forming knowledge on where nutrients are produced globally.

Mario Herrero (Chief Research Scientist and Office of the Chief Executive Science Leader in Agriculture and Food in CSIRO) points out that:

 “A sustainable food system that meets the needs of a growing population means we must focus on quality as well as quantity, and it is vital that we protect and support small and medium farms and more diverse agriculture so as to ensure sustainable and nutritional food production.”

The study led by Herrero examined 41 major crops, seven livestock products, and 14 fish groups to map the production of key nutrients globally, which is then linked this to farm size. The key nutrients studied including calcium, folate, iron, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and zinc.

Herrero found that small and medium farms produce between 50-75% of the world’s food
Herrero identified that a pattern similar to global food production emerges for global nutrient production.

The study found that small and medium farms not only produced most of the world’s food, but also provide most of the human population’s dietary nutrition. Farms that are smaller than 50 hectares produce over half of the global food supply, whilst farms less than 20 hectares in size produce more than 80% of essential nutrients in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the East Asia Pacific, and China.  So, to enhance nutrition diversity for health, agricultural diversity must also be improved.

“In our efforts to increase yields, we cannot ignore diversity and sources of key essential nutrients as part of a sustainable food system, and this means we must protect and support smaller farming enterprises,”

said Dr Herrero.


Nutritional diversity

There are well established links between agricultural diversity and dietary diversity. Diversity in national food supplies has been decreasing globally since 1960, with major cereals and oil crops increasing their share (source). This is partly because specialising on one product can be more economically efficient and increase overall production. However, in increasing overall food production, intensification must be met with diversification to ensure both food security and nutrition security.

The study by Herrero found that two key factors for global nutrient production are farms size and nutritional functional diversity. Herrero found that regions with smaller farm size have greater nutritionally diverse output.


Global map of field size

The study also found that small and medium farms have greater agricultural diversity, producing 53-81% of global micronutrients, and 57% of protein, in more diverse agricultural landscapes.

“Small and medium farms produce more than half of the food globally, and are particularly important in low income countries, where they produce the vast majority of food and nutrients,” says Herrero.

Large farms, as the dominant form in regions such as Australia, have significantly less diversity but their sheer scale affords a tradable surplus of food and nutrients in well established markets. These farms produce food as a commodity, and not typically for subsistence. In these settings, food is sold, and nutrition is bought.


Linking landscape diversity to nutrient production and farm size

“We now have a broad view of which micronutrients are produced where, and what sized farms are producing them,” said West.

The mapping of both global food and nutrient production is a key innovation to address global food security challenges. Estimates predict that to feed the growing population by 2050, a 70% increase in food availability will be required. But this focus on quantity alone will not be sufficient to provide quality dietary intake to a healthy population.

“We can use this information to assess food and nutrition security… as well as to develop and target incentives for supporting farmers and linking farming to improving human health.” Says West. 

But now we know the importance of nutritionally sensitive agricultural development, what’s the way forward? Well, we asked Dr Lindiwe Sibanda at the Crawford Fund 2017 Conference.

The first thing Lindiwe recommended is that we all need to admit what we know, and what we don’t know, and work together using our strengths to address the problems. Lindiwe speaks of the agricultural development which occurred in her home country of Zimbabwe, stating:

“I confess, we did not know that not one food can meet the nutritional requirements of your body”

Lindiwe speaks of the quest to modernise agriculture in many developing countries which spent more energy on modernisation but effectively removed nutrients.

One problem is that nutrition falls in a crevice between agriculture and health. There is no ministry for nutrition in national governments, in the same way that there are ministries for agriculture and for health. But as Lindiwe suggests, “it’s these two communities coming together” and “the two languages have to meet somewhere”.

We can no longer separate agriculture and health.  Food security is about far more than just producing more food, the role of smallholder farmers is far from small, and the challenges are about both quantity and quality.

 “Food is our medicine” says Lindiwe. “My grandmothers farm was her pharmacy”.

One thought on “Putting the Farm back in Pharmacy

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.