Crawford Fund Conference 2018: Reshaping Agriculture for Better Nutrition – The Agriculture, Food, Nutrition, Health Nexus

AgriEducate attended the Crawford Fund Conference in Canberra last month, which covered the nexus of agriculture, food, nutrition and health. Christine Freak is a passionate development ag writer and policy thinker, and was one of the AgriEducate representatives at the conference. Christine has put together the following article, reflecting on some of the key take away messages and themes that emerged. Enjoy! 

This year’s Crawford Fund Conference took a look into a very pressing issue for agricultural development, and global development itself – nutrition.  The 2018 conference, “Reshaping Agriculture for Better Nutrition – The Agriculture, Food, Nutrition, Health Nexus”, looked beyond the production side of agriculture, to explore consumption. Agriculture is at the heart of all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With these interrelationships and foundations, improvements in agriculture can have enormous impacts for global development.

For decades, the focus of developing agriculture and food systems was on quantity of production, not necessarily quality for consumption and nutritional needs. This turned focus towards increasing productivity, in a global effort to meet growing food demand spurred by the increasingly growing world population. It is fair to say that these efforts were largely successful, with increasing yields, new crop varieties, and new technologies of the Green Revolution leading to unprecedented quantities of food production, a doubling of the global average life expectancy since 1900, and a halving of the proportion of the global population deemed hungry since 1969. As a result, farmers around the world now produce enough calories to feed the entire 7,650,009,529 (and growing) of us on Earth.

However, now comes the recognition that food security is about more than just meeting demand, but about nourishment too. Despite the production of sufficient calories, the distribution, quality, diversity, and availability of food has created the triple burden of undernourishment, over-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. Whilst food has been a major driver of global development historically, it is now one of our greatest challenges.

As described by Dr Alessandro Demaio, “We live in a very complex situation where we have hunger and obesity living in the same household”.

On the one side of this paradox:

  • 155 million children stunted
  • 52 children are wasted
  • 2 billion people lack key micronutrients like iron and vitamin A

Yet, on the other:

  • 2 billion adults overweight or obese
  • 41 million children overweight

As a result, 88% of countries face a serious burden of either two or three forms of malnutrition, and the world is off track to meet all global nutrition targets.

It is now clear that the successes of the past decades are only the first step. As Dr Alessandro Demaio expresses:

“Food has shifted from something which brought such gains [to global development]…. But we now find ourselves in a situation in global history where food is the single greatest threat to human health”

The next step for global food security is nutrition security. This view looks beyond simple measures of calorie intake, particularly of the ‘big-3’ staple crops (wheat, maize and rice) and recognises the diversity and distribution of crop production which is necessary to foster human development. Professor Robyn Alders AO summarised eloquently:

“In agriculture, we have made mistakes with good intentions… we thought we could do it [achieve food security] with yields and productivity, but we now realise it’s much more complex”.

This complexity arises given the human face of agriculture. The complexity is deepened by the many actors involved, complex supply chains, the interrelated components which shape the nexus, the many disciplines required to respond, and delicate transitions required to address these issues. Australia has enormous expertise in agriculture. This is certainly an area where we can do more than our bit for global development.

The nutrition nexus is not only a concern of the developing world, but now presents as a challenge for all nations. The triple burden of malnutrition means that addressing nutrition concerns both under-nutrition (malnourishment, stunting, wasting), and over-nutrition (obesity, and lifestyle/dietary related diseases).  At the crux of this new agenda for food security, is the nexus of Agriculture, Food, Nutrition, Health – a nexus eloquently explored at this year’s conference.

If the entirety of the multiple questions grappled at this year’s conference could be collated into one question, it would be something along the lines of:

What are the best ways for agriculture and the food industry to help promote healthier diets taking into account the opportunities and constraints discussed above? Can it be achieved, what behaviours have to change and what policy levers are needed to assist?

 In response to this core question, AgriEducate has developed a range of articles to tackle this complex question.

As a quick summary, here are our key take-away messages:

  • Agriculture is at the heart of all the Sustainable Development Goals
  • The ‘Agriculture, Food, Nutrition, Health Nexus’ means we need to take a systems approach – Given the intersections and dependencies which exist within the nexus, we can no longer see agriculture in isolation from human health and environmental challenges.
  • Dietary diversity means we need to look beyond the ‘big-3’ (wheat, rice, maize) – agricultural production has tended to focus on monoculture production with economies of scale. But, with the need for dietary diversification, greater emphasis is now needed across a spectrum of crops for greater access to nutrients.
  • The solutions to these complex multidisciplinary challenges are going to come from transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches and collaborations, as well as disciplinary expertise.

For more information on each of these key messages, check out the below articles for an in-depth look into these key themes!

With these challenging ideas about the complex nexus of agriculture, food, nutrition and health, we think we’re best to finish off with the eloquent summary by the winner of the AgriEducate top 10 quotes from this years conference –  Robyn Alders:

“Nutrition can do lots for physical and cognitive wellbeing, but it can also just make us happy”

In-depth thematic focus articles

Moving to a food systems paradigm

How can agriculture be the biggest lever humans can pull in the anthropocene to ameliorate environmental, nutritional and food security issues?


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