How would the global food system be different if agricultural education and nutrition were taught together? The green revolution, which brought widespread dissemination of agricultural inputs to developing countries through extension services, also brought not only increased grain yields in many regions of the world but also obesity. Since 1960, India’s wheat yields increased 7-fold, while their ranking went from 19th most obese country in 1975 to one of the top 5 most obese countries in 2014. Conversely, India remains one of the most hungry countries with one-fourth of the world’s malnourished people. Malawi also has a similar positive trend of increased obesity and persistent malnourishment.
Suresh Babu speaking at the Symposium in a Ted talk style presentation.
Suresh Babu, professor at the International Food Policy Research Institute, shared his observations of agricultural education and nutrition capacity building in India and Malawi for the last 30 years. Babu emphasized as a country develops and income increases, there is an associated shift in the population’s diet from cereals to protective and fast food. Protective foods are foods that prevent diet related diseases such as leafy green vegetables, citrus, dairy, and meat. Fast foods are highly processed foods that are high in sugar and fat. The dietary shift away from malnourishment results in obesity related diet diseases. In my own experience, I observed a community in India that was in the process of shifting from a diet based on whole grain sorghum roti to white rice. As a young researcher, I collected their stories of increased high blood pressure and diabetes, while wondering if there is a way to prevent what seems to be this inevitable shift? Can we help build a food system with limited malnutrition and limit obesity related diseases simultaneously?
These questions brought me to Babu’s presentation at the InnovATE Symposium in Washington D.C. Nutrition sensitive agricultural innovations have long been proposed to solve the lack of connection between nutrition and increased crop productivity, but the feasibility has yet been seen. Already, existent agricultural extension institutions and their extension agents have been identified as a potential nutrition information source and agent of behavior change for communities. However, for this to occur, extension agents need to be competent in disseminating nutrition information. To ensure sustainable, consistent, and competent extension agents, nutrition needs to be added to the curriculum in nations’ agricultural education institutions. India and Malawi present two very different challenges for increasing institutional capacity for delivering nutrition education at the household level.
Malnourishment is high in rural women and children. India’s extension system is public sector, well developed, widespread, and has already been established as effective for disseminating agricultural information, which makes it an ideal communication channel for disseminating nutrition information.
In the 1980s, India’s agricultural curriculum included nutrition education. However, nutrition was removed from the curriculum, subsequently future extension agents acquired only a limited competency in nutrition and nutrition sensitive agriculture.
Institutional level policy change that places nutrition once again within the nation’s agricultural education institutions curriculum would construct the necessary foundation for future sustainable development of nutrition competent extension agents. To further ensure positive changes in diet in India, Babu suggests: (1) increased research in understanding the transfer of information from nation to household level; (2) development of open courses in nutrition readily available on- and offline; (3) increased crop diversity; (4) agricultural development that stresses increased income and nutrition, not just increased production; and (5) focus on nutrition, not just increased caloric consumption.
An improvement in India’s diet can occur when there is institutional capacity development that educates extension agents on nutrition. With the increased capacity development of extension agents in nutrition, they can disseminate nutrition information to rural Indians.
Malawi has faced chronic food insecurity for at least the last 25 years. Malawi has not yet developed effective institutional capacity to prevent hunger, but has focused on providing humanitarian aid. A shift needs to occur from hunger relief to hunger prevention through sustainable, resilient agricultural development. In order for this to occur, Malawi needs frequent, high quality agricultural extension. Malawi’s public sector extension system has limited access to resources. As a result, Malawi’s extension system has become pluralistic. The private sector and NGOs are starting to become important suppliers of extension services to rural Malawi. One limitation to pluralistic extension in Malawi is that private partners and NGOs have limited network connections with universities and Malawi’s education system.
To impact food insecurity in Malawi, Babu suggested that NGOs and the private sector focus on increasing Malawi food production through entrepreneurship. This would allow the public sector to focus on nutrition extension. In order for this to be achieved: (1) development of Malawi’s institutional capacity will need effective nutritional curriculum, and (2) institutional capacity for networking between private sector, NGOs, public sector, and educational institutions must be developed.
Institutional Capacity for Nutrition Extension
India and Malawi are very different countries in terms of the types of food insecurity and diet related diseases they face. However, both countries could benefit from: (1) building policy that supports nutrition extension, (2) developing and implementing nutrition curriculum in agricultural education systems, and (3) creating the next generation of extension agents that are competent in agriculture and nutrition.
Claire Friedrichsen is a PhD student at the University of Florida examining decision-making processes in soil management. She looks at how stakeholders perceive soil management as part of the food system and their perception of how soil health relates to their own food security. Her current research is looking at communities in India and Haiti who are participating in community development programs.