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Small Scale, Big Impact: How to Improve Nutrition Through Small Scale Agriculture

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As a child, I remember my mother painstakingly trying to persuade me to weed our garden, and introducing me to a low-growing bright-leaved plant that tried to monopolise the grass - amaranth - an irritant to farmers and gardeners alike in the UK. A few months back I was in a remote part of northeast Bangladesh, meeting women who participate in an integrated food and nutrition security programme run by CARE. They were crouched down scraping back the weeds from small patches of soil, to rescue a small, cress-like, pretty red-leaved plant, growing alongside the onions and beans. What was to me a weed, which I so reluctantly plucked from the flower beds in my early years, is a fast growing, richly nutritious source of Vitamin A. Red Amaranth is highly valued by households in Bangladesh and elsewhere, for it can contribute to eliminating night blindness for pregnant women and up to half a million infants.

This is a starting point for a new report published by the Hunger Alliance this week. There is currently sufficient food in the world for everyone, but 870 million people - one person in eight - does not have enough assured, nutritious food and 2.3 million children die needlessly each year from malnutrition. What to do about this? We suggest it requires investing in smallholder farmers - in women smallholder farmers in particular - and growing fruit and vegetables wherever there's space.

Small scale farming in Africa and Asia - that is, farming small plots of land of up to two hectares and typically much less - provides 80% of the food for the market places and households across these continents. And women produce 60-80% of the food in developing countries. So it's not large scale agri-business on immense, prairie-crossing tractors that are the drivers of food productivity in countries where food insecurity is prevalent. It's women.

Research by the World Bank has shown that women are consistently more likely than men to invest in their children's health, nutrition, and education. It is therefore women's productivity in particular that translates into better health and nutrition for the poor as a whole. In the 25 years, from 1970, half of the decrease in food insecurity was attributable to improvements in women's status in society, in female education and in health. But gender inequality, power imbalance, lack of property rights or access to education, hinder their role in household decision-making. Women may account for 60-80% of food production in developing countries but they only receive 5% of small scale agriculture investment. Women hold responsibility for both food production and childcare in developing countries, so focusing investment on the skills of women farmers is one of the most effective ways to tip the balance from malnutrition and poverty into good health and greater prosperity for them and their families.

In 2012, 15% of the populations of developing countries were estimated to be chronically undernourished. Micronutrient deficiencies especially Vitamin A, iodine, iron and zinc are major factors in stunting, wasting and premature death. Over three quarters of a million children die from deficiency in either Vitamin A or zinc and iron deficiency contributes to one fifth of maternal deaths each year. Economically this is an immense loss in household and national productivity. But it is also about realising rights, particularly of women and girls who suffer the greatest inequity and a disproportionate level of this appalling and avoidable under-nutrition.

In this same remote rural community, cut off from any road access during the monsoon season, the prices of vegetables were over five times higher than in the market opposite our CARE office in central Dhaka. Five times higher - for some of the poor and most vulnerable communities in the country. So to ensure a balanced diet, it is much more economic for a household to grow vegetables or raise small livestock - tomatoes, beans, chickens, or ducks, or fish - wherever there's spare land. Similar to the urban gardens promoted in the UK - to grow fresh cheap vegetables in allotments, window-boxes and spare plant pots, households in rural areas can find similar spaces. In Bangladesh, marrow stems tumble of the low thatched rooftops, patches of community land and the sides of paddy are communally gardened for garlic, radishes, aubergines and sweet potato. This provides a direct source to nutritious food and additional income from the sales of any surplus.

These improvements are most effective when combined with complementary interventions such as nutrition education, women's education, access to water, sanitation health and safety net services. SHOUHARDO (Strengthening Household Ability to Respond to Development Opportunities) was a $126m programme launched in 2006 by CARE to improve nutrition through a package of services and education aimed at women in rural Bangladesh. It went beyond direct nutrition interventions to include training in home gardens, maternal health, immunisation and financial services, as well as the formation of women's groups to identify solutions to the problems faced by women such as violence, early marriage and lack of education.

The impact of this co-ordinated charge on malnutrition was impressive: Stunting within the target population had fallen by almost 16 percentage points in just three years. Agricultural productivity through women's home gardens was an important part of that, but combining it with other forms of intervention in women's training, education and confidence magnified the impact on nutrition. Action Against Hunger found similar impacts in Mali - promoting nutrition gardens alongside training in food and nutrition, breastfeeding and sanitation, amongst others, decreased child malnutrition in participating villages and increased the proportion of children with access to Vitamin-A rich food by 40%. And the decreases in child malnutrition and anaemia among women through fruit, vegetable and small livestock cultivation supported by water and sanitation facilities, and promoting breastfeeding by World Vision's ten-year 'Micronutrient and Health project across four African countries, proves again that malnutrition can be decreased with relatively modest investment in small scale women farmers, integrated with other programmes. Small scale - Big impact.

The report published this week was commissioned by the Hunger Alliance from the Overseas Development Institute and these are its three key findings from analysis of decades of programmes designed to combat food and nutrition insecurity in Bangladesh, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and India. It also finds that small-scale farming has environmental benefits too. Smallholder agriculture tends to include a mix of plants, trees and animals, which helps sustain local ecosystems, and appropriate small-scale farming practices can both protect and rejuvenate the environment. The more viable these farms are economically, the more incentive there is for farmers to preserve those ecosystems.

The UN Secretary-General's Zero Hunger Challenge calls on governments, businesses and civil society to ensure adequate food for all by 2025. Prime Minster Cameron's Hunger Summit as part of the G8 meetings in five weeks' time, is an opportunity for the UK to lead other governments towards a goal that is within grasp. In line with the Enough Food For Everyone IF campaign - a coalition of development charities and faith groups lobbying for the UK to use its presidency of the G8 to help end global hunger - the report calls for the UK government to invest an additional £425 million per year in small-scale sustainable agricultural systems, representing the UK's share of what is needed to fill the gap in poor countries' funding for agriculture.

Even in just the last few months, we have witnessed a growing consensus in support of smallholder agriculture. Reports, tools, conferences and multi-partner platforms have come from UNICEF, the World Bank, IDS , the Montpellier Panel and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and the recent Dublin Conference, to name too few. These have stressed the importance of integrated programming, of smallholder farming, and of women to improve nutrition. The UK and G8 leaders should commit to accountably scaling up support for sustainable small scale agriculture through national and regional agricultural plans, such as the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme, and multilateral financing mechanisms, such as the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP). Donors should ensure a joined-up multi-sector approach to address hunger and malnutrition ensuring alignment between health, hygiene, nutrition, agriculture, food security and welfare programming. And the commitments and impacts must be accountable - that is, carefully monitored.

So as so often, it's there, we can do it, but it just needs the political will. Go on Mr Cameron, show why you continue to back the 0.7% commitment what your achievement of it this year can really do.

Larissa Pelham.
Chair, UK Hunger Alliance
Food Security Advisor, CARE International, UK