Agriculture and Nutrition Can’t Be Kept in Separate Silos, Say Experts

Before funding for a USAID project disappears, the director of food security and nutrition wants to apply some of the program’s lessons on nutrition-sensitive agriculture to broader food systems.

Written by Amruta Byatnal Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Myanmar women agricultural workers harvest sesame seeds: SPRING has worked to bridge the gap between agriculture and nutrition.THET AUNG/AFP/Getty Images

To achieve global targets for reducing malnutrition, experts in the food and agricultural sectors need to pay more attention to how their work impacts nutrition in general. That is one of the key takeaways of USAID’s Strengthening Partnerships, Results and Innovations in Nutrition Globally (SPRING) project, which has been working for the last seven years to bring together the disparate worlds of agriculture and nutrition.

Heather Danton, the director of food security and nutrition at SPRING, said they have had the most success at the local level. Now that a lack of funding is threatening to close down the project, experts there are working quickly to convert some of the findings from those efforts into lessons that can be adopted at higher levels.

Danton spoke to Malnutrition Deeply about what some of those lessons have been and how to encourage multi-sectoral programming between agriculture and nutrition silos.

Malnutrition Deeply: How did the nutrition-sensitive agriculture work in SPRING start?

Heather Danton: The impetus behind the work that we’ve been doing came from the original Feed the Future investments by the U.S. government. In 2011, we suggested that we do a landscape analysis of the 19 Feed the Future investments that had already been made, and we reviewed the designs and reports. We were able to identify a number of key opportunities for improving contributions to nutrition through the agriculture and economic growth-led designs of those investments. What the investments tended to do at that time was to silo nutrition and agriculture, and our review brought out a lot of consistent opportunities for bringing the two together.

The work coming out of that has actually set the tone for most of our work over the last four and a half years. Those designs have major themes that you’ll see pretty much worldwide: things having to do with coordinating and collaborating, identifying entry points for nutrition using the pathways. We’ve developed a number of the large components, reports, and tools. We still have seen continuity with those initial findings. So, that’s what drove our work. Design, coordination, collaboration, measurement, behavior change: That was a big component of what we’ve been doing.

Malnutrition Deeply: What does your partnership with local governments look like on the ground?

Danton: Our primary stakeholders have been USAID missions and their implementing partners inclusive of government. But I think our government work or impact has been much more at the district or local level than national at this point. That being said, I think a lot of our work, and the work that we’ve published and the training that we’ve done when we’ve been on the ground, for example, in the SPRING countries like Ghana and Bangladesh, where SPRING actually had an operation, had much more influence over government strategies.

There are still a lot of questions on the part of government about how they actually put multi-sectoral programming together for nutrition. There’s still a pretty well-established cohort that sits within ministries that go like, “No, no, no, nutrition sits in health, and food sits in agriculture” That’s a tough thing to overcome. But some of the work we’ve done with coordination and collaboration has floated up in a couple of cases to the national level. But for the most part, our work has been more meaningful at the district and regional level.

Malnutrition Deeply: You mentioned you also work with the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, and I’m interested to know a little more about that collaboration.

Danton: It’s been aspirational more than anything. We’ve talked to them a few times about our nutrition-sensitive agriculture work, especially as it applies to some of the working groups.They have the private-sector working groups, and a number of them are trying to help to position governments towards more comprehensive approaches to nutrition. SPRING as a whole has done quite a lot with SUN, but not necessarily around nutrition-sensitive agriculture; more with our work in anemia and social and behavior change (SBC) and with the systems area.

Building an awareness at a number of different levels around what can be done and what doesn’t have to be done [is key]. I don’t think everybody in the food system needs to feel like, “Oh, everything I do has to be about nutrition,” because there are lots of other things that the food system does.

But helping the food system actors to know the role that they can play without completely derailing the other things that the food system delivers on is really important, in terms of environmental impacts, and obviously income, which is the main driver of most of these value chains. I think we can accomplish all those things and still do positive things for nutrition. And that’s actually what we’re working on right now. We’re taking our more household-oriented pathways and working on a concept for translating nutrition-sensitive agriculture into food systems.

Malnutrition Deeply: What was it like for the households and farmers that you worked with to go from being involved in agriculture to now thinking about nutrition. Was that a big transition?

Danton: Not really. A lot of the siloing that happens in development is our own doing. So we work with women’s groups in addition to being a part of a mother support group, and at the same time you’re part of a farmers’ group, and you might also be part of a literacy group. Or a borrowing group. So women wind up having to compartmentalize their lives based on where the assistance is and how it’s designed. One of our key learnings is that nutrition-sensitive agriculture needs to sit in agriculture. It can’t be something that sits outside of it. It can’t be a separate area.

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