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Health: the challenge of improving nutrition

Priya Shetty, SciDev
A healthy diet is more than just calories. Priya Shetty gets the figures on the cost of poor nutrition — and the scale of the challenge.

Hunger: it’s an emotive term for undernutrition. It conjures images of famine and starvation in the developing world.

Technically, undernutrition is the outcome of insufficient food and repeated infectious diseases. It includes being severely underweight or dangerously thin (wasted), too short (stunted), and deficient in vitamins and minerals.

But the world’s food problems are far more complex and widespread than just undernutrition.

Certainly, some people have no food at all and every year approximately 1.5 million children die from wasting caused by severe undernutrition. But most people in poor countries never have to grapple with total starvation — for them, malnutrition caused by an imbalanced or inadequate diet is more likely.

Many rely too much on high-calorie staples, like maize or rice. Good nutrition is not just about consuming enough calories — people need protein and micronutrients they can only get through a balanced diet. When people do not, or cannot, eat a wide range of food, they become malnourished. They can survive, but cannot flourish.

Developing nations already prioritise food security, i.e. ensuring access to food. But it is increasingly clear that simply providing food is not enough. To protect vulnerable populations, governments must also ensure nutrition security.

…Yet an increase in food supplies does not necessarily translate into improved nutrition.

Indeed, the ‘nutrition transition’, occurring in some rapidly developing countries as people shift away from traditional diets and lead more sedentary lifestyles, is far from benign. Studies suggest that populations with access to high-calorie diets take the bulk of their calories from fat and sugar. Correspondingly, the amount of complex carbohydrates and micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables stays low. [9]

Obesity’s rapid rise is creating new subsets of the population that face health problems linked to excess weight but still lack the key nutrients they need to be healthy.

The number of obese people in many countries is fast overtaking the number who are underweight — even in the poorest rural regions (see Figure 2). In Mexico, for example, nearly 60 per cent of people are overweight, compared with less than ten per cent underweight.
(20 Jan 2010)

Small family farms in tropics can feed the hungry and preserve biodiversity

Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer, Physorg (for open web access; formal publisher PNAS )
Conventional wisdom among many ecologists is that industrial-scale agriculture is the best way to produce lots of food while preserving biodiversity in the world’s remaining tropical forests. But two University of Michigan researchers reject that idea and argue that small, family-owned farms may provide a better way to meet both goals.

In many tropical zones around the world, small family farms can match or exceed the productivity of industrial-scale operations, according to U-M researchers Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer. At the same time, smaller diversified farms are more likely to help preserve biodiversity in tropical regions undergoing massive amounts of deforestation, Perfecto and Vandermeer conclude in a paper to be published online Feb. 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Most of the tropical forest that’s left is fragmented, and what you have are patches of forest surrounded by agriculture,” said Perfecto, a professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. “If you want to maintain biodiversity in those patches of forest, then the key is to allow organisms to migrate between the patches.

“And small-scale family farms that adopt sustainable agricultural technologies are more likely to favor migration of species than a huge, monocultural plantation of soybeans or sugar cane or some other crop.”

Some ecologists have suggested that the history of eastern North American forests provides a preview of what’s likely to happen in the tropics. European colonization of eastern North America led to massive deforestation that accompanied the expansion of agriculture. Later, industrialization drew people to cities from the rural areas, and the forests recovered.

This scenario is known as the forest transition model. It has been argued that if a similar progression occurs in the tropics, then the decline in rural populations would make more land potentially available for conservation. A corollary of the forest transition model states that if you consolidate agriculture into large, high-tech farms, productivity increases and more land is freed up for conservation…
(22 February 2010)
Contributor Billhook observes:

For this scientific support of the ‘Integration’ model of human communities’ agriculture and biodiversity to be published by “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” is a major advance.

The incompetence of the standard model, that of the ‘Isolation’ of parcels of nature within a sea of agribusiness monocultures, has been tolerated for too long.

Both the commercial sponsors of ‘isolationism’ (just look at the bit we’ve allowed to survive) and the supposedly charitable NGO sponsors (sling a fence round it & call it ‘saved by us’) will doubtless continue their opposition to advancing humanity’s integration within the natural ecology – their financial growth depends on it – but at last their policies are definitely losing the backing of science.

Jonathan Safran Foer: the truth about fish farming

Jonathan Safran Foer, The Guardian
Factory-farmed chickens, turkeys and cattle all suffer in fundamentally similar ways. So, it turns out, do fish. We tend not to think of fish and land animals in the same way, but “aquaculture” – the intensive rearing of sea animals in confinement – is essentially under- water factory farming.

The Handbook of Salmon Farming, an industry how-to book, details six “key stressors in the aquaculture environment”: “water quality”, ­”crowding”, “handling”, “disturbance”, “nutrition” and “hierarchy”. To translate into plain language, those six sources of suffering for salmon are: water so fouled that it makes it hard to breathe; crowding so intense that animals begin to cannibalise one another; handling so invasive that ­physiological measures of stress are evident a day later; disturbance by farmworkers and wild animals; nutritional deficiencies that weaken the ­immune system; and the inability to form a stable social hierarchy, ­resulting in more cannibalisation. These problems are typical. The handbook calls them “integral components of fish farming”.

A major source of suffering for salmon and other farmed fish is the abundant presence of sea lice, which thrive in the filthy water. These lice create open lesions and sometimes eat down to the bones on a fish’s face – a phenomenon known as the “death crown” in the industry. A single salmon farm generates swarming clouds of sea lice in numbers 30,000 times higher than naturally occur.

The fish that survive these conditions (a 10% to 30% death rate is seen as good by many in the salmon industry) are likely to be starved for seven to 10 days to diminish their bodily waste during transport to slaughter then killed by having their gills sliced before being tossed into a tank of water to bleed to death. Often the fish will be slaughtered while conscious, and convulse in pain as they die. In other cases, they may be stunned, but current stunning methods are unreliable…
(23 February 2010)

Scientists unite to combat water scarcity; solutions yield more crop per drop in drylands

CGIAR press release
New Middle East regional initiative to confront climate change promises greater food security, economic development and social stability

AMMAN, JORDAN (3 February 2010)—As rapidly increasing water scarcity threatens to aggravate the effects of climate change on agriculture in the dry areas of the Middle East and other developing countries, scientists launched this week an ambitious seven-country project, which offers new hope for farmers in the face of acute and growing water shortages.

Gathering in Amman, Jordan, for a global conference on food security and climate change in dry areas, experts reported that improved irrigation techniques in rainfed cropping will allow farmers to more than double their wheat yields using only one-third the water they would use with full irrigation; the new methods have been shown to boost farmers’ yields up to five-fold over those crops which relied on rainfall only. Such innovative strategies could provide a much-needed lift to livelihoods in dry areas in the developing world, home to almost 25 percent of the world’s population.

Regions most affected by drought and water scarcity are also disproportionately challenged by high population growth, climatic unreliability, frequent droughts, and widespread poverty, the experts said, citing figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

“In some countries in the region, per capita water availability has dropped to as little as 170 cubic meters per year, well below the internationally recognized water scarcity standard of 1000 cubic meters,” said Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General of the Aleppo-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). “There is a direct relationship between access to water and access to food and feed security. Unless we form a united front that responds effectively to water scarcity in agriculture and to the impacts of climate change, the future food security, economic development, and social stability of the entire region will be put in jeopardy.”

Seven Middle Eastern countries—Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Yemen—will work jointly to improve water management in agriculture as part of a 10-year effort called the Water and Livelihoods Initiative (WLI), which is being funded through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by ICARDA, which is supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The WLI will focus on improving rural livelihoods through sustainable land and water management in three agro-systems—irrigated agriculture, rainfed agriculture and rangelands.

“Rainfed areas account for 80 percent of the world’s farmland,” said Dr. Theib Oweis, a researcher with ICARDA. “If dryland countries are to achieve food security in the face of climate change, it’s especially urgent that they unlock the potential of rainfed agriculture through efficient practices like supplemental irrigation and water harvesting.”

Research conducted by ICARDA and its partners has shown that supplemental irrigation—using only a third of the amount of water required for full irrigation—can boost water productivity to as high as 2.5 kilograms of wheat grain per cubic meter of water, compared to 0.5 kilograms under strictly rainfed conditions and 1 kilogram under full irrigation.

In Morocco, for example, the early planting with supplemental irrigation has been shown to double wheat yields and water productivity and to help the wheat crop escape late-season drought and heat stress. “In addition to increasing yields, supplemental irrigation provides a buffer against drought during the growing season,” added Dr. Oweis. “Combine this with water harvesting, and you have a winning solution.”

Research on water harvesting in the Jordan steppe, or badia, has demonstrated dramatically how 50 percent of rainfall runoff can be harvested and used to grow useful vegetation cover for rangelands and to reverse desertification. Other ICARDA research in Syria has resulted in the development of a rapid and efficient method for using modern geographical information systems, or GIS, to select appropriate locations for water harvesting from among thousands of possibilities.

According to Dr. Oweis, WLI offers a grand opportunity to rethink agricultural water management across the Middle East. A major challenge, he explains, is to shift from the conventional focus on “land productivity,” which usually ignores the amount of water used, to a new concern with “water productivity,” that is, the “biophysical, economic, social and environmental returns from a unit volume of water used.”

Starting with US$1 million from USAID, each of the countries taking part in the new initiative will begin implementing its own proposal for improving water and land management linked under the combined initiative. The consortium of countries will receive technical backstopping from ICARDA, together with two other CGIAR Centers—the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and International Water Management Institute (IWMI)—as well as from a number of US universities.

“Innovations in water management must be broadly based and bring together the various strands of agricultural and natural resource management research, the adoption and adaptation of findings by farmers, and the development of policy,” Dr. Solh said.

In order for this research to succeed, Dr. Solh said, countries of the Middle East and other dryland regions must discard the inappropriate policies of the past on water and land use and leave behind fragmented research on agriculture and natural resource management. Rather, they must embrace new collaborative approaches that strengthen human capacity and extend across national boundaries.

“The Water and Livelihoods Initiative,” he said, “is a big step in the right direction.”
(3 February 2010)
For information about the International Conference on Food Security and Climate Change in Dry Areas, please visit:

For information about the Water and Livelihoods Project, please visit:


Established in 1977, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) is one of 15 centers supported by the CGIAR. ICARDA’s mission is to contribute to the improvement of livelihoods of the resource-poor in dry areas by enhancing food security and alleviating poverty through research and partnerships to achieve sustainable increases in agricultural productivity and income, while ensuring the efficient and more equitable use and conservation of natural resources. ICARDA has a global mandate for the improvement of barley, lentil and faba bean and serves the non-tropical dry areas for the improvement of on-farm water-use efficiency, rangeland and small-ruminant production. In the Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA) region, ICARDA contributes to the improvement of bread and durum wheats, kabuli chickpea, pasture and forage legumes and associated farming systems.

About the CGIAR

The CGIAR, established in 1971, is a strategic partnership of countries, international and regional organizations and private foundations supporting the work of an alliance of 15 international Centers. In collaboration with national agricultural research systems, civil society and the private sector, the CGIAR fosters sustainable agricultural growth through high-quality science aimed at benefiting the poor through stronger food security, better human nutrition and health, higher incomes and improved management of natural resources.

Potatoes, Not Just Pistons, Take Root in Detroit

Sarah Newman, Civil Eats
We’ve heard from the politicians, academics, activists, and social commentators about how to help a city like Detroit that is economically-depressed, struggling to retain residents (let alone attract new ones), and home to 500,000 food insecure residents. What has happened? Not much. People offer statistical calculations for how to reduce poverty levels but the city continues to lose residents and increase the number of vacant homes and lots. Mix in the obesity epidemic, lack of access to healthy, nutritious food and you’ve got the worst-case scenario for the city. I have a new equation to offer for how to build up Detroit. Till soil + plant seeds = self empowerment and community development. Multiply this over and over and the change is exponential. The enthralling short documentary, Urban Roots, proves this theory true.

Ironically, the problems that plague the city also offer the best hope for it. The city is slowly providing residents with opportunities to rebuild itself with their every bite of food. Urban Roots profiles residents in Detroit who are making in-roads into their community by transforming vacant lots by tilling the land, planting seeds, and harvesting foods. Although the idea of urban farming might be unknown to many people or just assumed to be commonplace in coastal areas such as San Francisco and Brooklyn, Detroit is becoming more about potatoes than pistons.

The film shows how community gardens are transforming thousands of acres of vacant lots in the city to grow food. For the hundreds of thousands of residents in food deserts whose only regular meals are from convenience stores or fast-food restaurants, residents now have the opportunity for locally-grown nutritious produce. People are growing foods for themselves, neighbors and to sell at local markets. This is infusing a cash-strapped city with much needed economic growth.

Most importantly, the film shows how these urban farms are tools for individual growth, community development and family survival. By growing and harvesting their own food, residents are empowering themselves to be self-sufficient and to empower their neighborhoods.
(22 February 2010)
Link to the film trailer is here

She Farms

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book via Science Blogs
… Women feed the world, and I mean that quite literally. Worldwide, according to the UN FAO, more than 50% of all the food grown worldwide is produced by women, who constitute close to 60% of the world’s farmers – and more than 70% of the world’s small farmers. More than 80% of all food processing and preparation worldwide is done by women – everything from grain grinding to dinner cooking.

85% of the world’s farms are small farms, producing half the world’s calories. In many parts of the world, they produce the vast majority, including grain staples. 80% of African farms are small farms and almost 90% are farmed by women. In Asia, the majority of all the world’s rice is grown on small farms with less than 2 hectares in production – often by women.

in the US, women are the single-fastest growing demographic group – while women own only 7% of all farms, their numbers doubled from 2000 to 2007. As in the world as a whole, US women farmers are vastly less likely to own their land than male farmers – less than 1% of all agricultural land worldwide is actually owned by women. In many cases, land titles are held by males and their families, while women actually work the land, and that land can be sold out from under them.

Everywhere in the world, women farmers face astonishing barriers.
(19 February 2010)

New Investments in Agriculture Likely to Fail Without Sharp Focus on Small-Scale ‘Mixed’ Farmer

A new paper published in Science warns that billions of dollars promised to fund programs to boost small-scale agriculture in developing countries are unlikely to succeed in feeding the world’s increasing populations. This is due not only to increasing populations and changing environments, but also to little “intellectual commitment” to the ubiquitous small-scale “mixed” farmers who raise both crops and animals and are the source of much of today’s food supplies and economic development.

The authors, who include scientists from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the World Bank, urge wealthy countries, which pledged US$20 billion for developing-country agriculture at the G8 summit in Italy last year, to look beyond “business as usual” investments.

“In most regions of the world, farming systems are under intense pressure. But the problems are not the same everywhere,” said Mario Herrero, ILRI senior scientist and the paper’s lead author. “In the past, farmers have developed the ability to adapt to small changes, in terms of weather patterns and access to fertile land and water. But the rapid rates of change seen in many developing countries today outstrip the capacity of many to adapt.”

Smallholder mixed farmers, particularly in Africa and Asia, have been overlooked by donors and policymakers because they typically cultivate small plots of land, where they grow modest amounts of staple crops such as rice and maize while also tending a few cows, goats or chickens. Yet collectively these farmers are feeding most of the world’s one billion poor people and they are the key to any efforts to intensify production in the developing world, according to the paper.

The analysis reports that small farms that combine crop and livestock production supply much of food staples of developing countries — 41 percent of maize, 86 percent of rice and 74 percent of millet — and most of the meat and dairy products consumed in these regions as well. These so-called “mixed systems” can be models of efficient farming, with livestock providing the draft power to till the land and leftover crop residues serving as feed for animals. Moreover, the eggs, milk and meat from livestock routinely serve as important sources of regular household income, of high-quality protein, as well as a buffer against failed harvests.

Herrero and his colleagues believe this mixed, or integrated, approach to farming offers many opportunities to increase food production sustainably in the developing world “where over the next few decades, agricultural systems, already facing a variety of stresses, will be expected to accommodate a massive population surge.” But the authors caution that realizing the potential of the crop-livestock approach will require reorienting agricultural policies to support smallholder farmers facing an array of challenges that over the next 20 years will challenge farmers’ ability to stay abreast of population growth…
(11 February 2010)
thanks to kalpa for the story above.