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Photo: A Paul/ICRISAT
Groundnut food tasting in Mali.

Smallholder agriculture can play a strong role in reducing hunger through a broader approach encompassing health, nutrition education and women’s empowerment. Biofortification, producing safer and more diversified food and promoting nutritious and resilient crops, are some of the ways towards nutrition-smart agriculture.

850 million - Number of people who go to bed hungry. 2 billion lack the micronutrients essential for healthy growth such as zinc and iron.

Malnutrition - The first cause of death in developing countries: at least 1/3 of child mortality and 20% maternal deaths.

2.6 million - Number of young children who die each year of malnutrition

The first 1,000 days - Critical for a  child's development.

We need to mainstream nutrition into agricultural research for development. We can achieve this by
  • Growing nutri-resilient crops  - crops that are highly nutritious as well as better able to cope with drought and poor soil
  • Partnering for nutrition impact
  • Incorporating nutrition needs along the whole value chain. 

Growing nutri-resilient crops

In the semi-arid tropics, where smallholder families are often trapped in a cycle of drought, poor soils and malnutrition, growing high yield, nutritious and resilient crops is key.

Grain legumes (eg chickpea, groundnut, pigeonpea) and dryland cereals (millets and sorghum) enable farmers to have more balanced diets at the same time as their crops being more resilient to pests and drought. 

Nutrition composition of dryland cereals and grain legumes
Dryland cereals bring essential micronutrients. Finger millet, for instance, is very high in calcium, rich in iron and fiber with a better energy content than other cereals, which makes this ideal for infants and the elderly.

Likewise, pearl millet and sorghum provide 50% of iron and 75% of zinc in childrens’ diets in West and Central Africa.  Furthermore, through greater use of whole grain pearl millet and sorghum, micronutrient intake can increase even more, and with food processing techniques such as fermentation, the bio-availability of these micronutrients can be enhanced.  

Grain legumes like chickpea are high in protein and brings many nutrition and health benefits, while improving soil fertility thanks to biological nitrogen fixation.

Partnering for nutrition impact

Any nutrition-sensitive agriculture initiative needs to be integrated within an ecosystem including taste preferences, nutrition awareness and nutrition education, diversified farms, better hygiene, sanitation and primary health care.

Enhancing access to more nutritious and diversified food, along with combating agricultural price volatility has a straightforward impact on household nutrition. But it is necessary also to solve water and sanitation issues. Water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea worsen children’s nutrition status. Better hygiene and access to health services should be promoted. Nutrition education should be provided, encouraging for instance exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child.

Therefore, engaging the right partners across health and agriculture is  essential to ensure a sustainable impact on nutrition. This is being tested for instance in Mali where ICRISAT is part of the Africa Rising initiative, training community health centers and women’s groups on breastfeeding, hygiene, use of maternal and child health services, malaria prevention, dietary diversification, food processing methods for best nutrient retention (eg, the grain’s husk is high in iron and zincso different malting and fermentation processes increase the nutrients available) and infant food recipes using sorghum and millet mixed with nutritious traditional ingredients like baobab and moringa. 

Behavourial Change Communication, such as promoting good infant feeding practices, can have a strong and sustainable impact, reaching out farmers at large scale to change farming and feeding practices. 

Farmer-friendly knowledge-sharing tools such as farmer-led videos or local theatre shows on aflatoxin in Mali, improve adoption of practices that lead to better nutrition, such as diversification, crop rotation, inter cropping and good soil and water management. 

Having local nutrition champions for better nutrition awareness within the community is key. Professor Swaminathan, Father of India's green revolution and World Food Prize winner, calls for training one woman and one man in nutrition literacy to serve as ‘community hunger fighters’ to help address malnutrition.

Women play a key role in the family nutrition, especially towards the children, so nutrition efforts need to target women. Women empowerment, meaning their ability to make strategic decisions within the household for their livelihoods, can be an issue in some countries. Particular attention should be drawn to pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers as their malnutrition impacts the baby development. 50% of pregnant women in developing countries suffer anemia [ref: WHO]. 

Easing labour demands on women  frees more time for them for child care which in turn impacts nutrition. By replacing pestle and mortars with village grinding machines, women farmers have used the time freed from manually threshing and milling the grains, to pursue poultry farming and ensure her children have an evening meal. 

Incorporating nutrition needs along the whole value chain
  • What makes farmers grow nutri-resilient crops?

Participatory crop testing and food tastings is a way to convince farmers to grow nutri-resilient crops, eg more protein and lipid rich legumes such as "good mother" groundnut in Mali.

Nutrition value is not enough however. Farmers will look for high yield crops with good market value for instance.

Harnessing Opportunities for Productivity Enhancement of Sorghum and Millets in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia or HOPE project seeks to help smallholder farmers increase the yields of the two dryland cereal crops in West and Eastern Africa and India. The project is increasing, for instance, yields of finger millet in Tanzania through improved varieties which benefits families using this as a nutritious porridge for young children.

In Ethiopia, the Tropical Legumes  II project has introduced drought tolerant chickpea varieties (selected by farmers themselves) which have encouraged them to diversify their farms from growing only cereals to growing a mixture of cereal and chickpea, which also helps naturally replenish the soil.

Developing appropriate seed systems for smallholder farmers to have access to quality seeds of these overlooked crops is important.

The Malawi certified legume seeds diversification project with farmer groups ensures quality seeds for better nutrition and yields.

  • Production and diet diversification

Diversifying the crops on the farm and the diet helps increase macro and micronutrient intake, while reducing the risk of food insecurity in the harsh environment of drylands.

Combining cereals with legumes, agroforestry farming systems, improving home gardens  or developing small-scale irrigation systems [eg African Market Garden] to increase vegetable and fruit production and consumption, and finding ways to rear livestock and fish for greater protein intake, lead to diet diversification.

Developing and testing with the farming community local nutritious recipes using dryland cereals, grain legumes and other local crops is a promising field of research for nutrition impact. ICRISAT has partnered with Aga Khan Foundation in Mali to train women's groups to make equinut, a healthy and nutritious version of a traditional recipe « di-dèguè » (peanut paste, honey and millet or rice flour). 

  • Biofortification
Breeding and disseminating micronutrient-rich crop varieties -biofortification -could be a cost-effective strategy to increase micronutrient intake such as iron and zinc among smallholder farming communities, once the biofortified varieties are adopted at large scale.

To fight iron deficiency, ICRISAT has developed, under the CGIAR's Harvest Plus program and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health CRP, a biofortified iron-rich pearl millet, an important staple food among rural poor in Western India.

A study published in the Journal of Nutrition shows that pearl millet bred to contain more iron and zinc can provide young children with their full daily iron and zinc needs." 

Under the INSTAPA project, ICRISAT is studying  the potential of biofortification in Africa.

​Sorghum in Mali is always consumed in the decorticated form (de-branning or dehulling). The retention of minerals (eg iron or zinc) after manual decortication is as high as 44% (ref INSTAPA - Mali biofortification work)

  • Bioavailability of micronutrients

Bioavailability of micronutrients (which refers to the effective uptake of nutrients by the body after digestion) depends on the presence of anti-nutritional factors (eg phytates), and the way staple crops are processed and prepared. For instance, ICRISAT is studying the impact of processing methods for dryland cereals, such as malting and fermentation, on the bioavailability of micronutrients. Recipes are also being tested such as adding vitamin C which can increase nutrient uptake.

  • Food safety

Ensuring that farmers produce safe crops and food is important. Aflatoxins for instance are poisonous toxins produced by fungi infecting crops such as groundnuts, sorghum, cassava and maize. More than five billion people in the developing world  are exposed to aflatoxin by unknowingly consuming contaminated foods.

The kits enhance food safety for consumers and supports trade and income generation activities that boosts producer incomes. Studies show that when poor women have access to cash, much of it used to purchase more nutritious food for their families.

  • Food processing research                           

The Agribusiness Innovation Platform carries out food processing and nutrition research on ICRISAT mandate crops. In vitro bioavailability will soon be studied under simulated gut conditions in the lab to test nutrient absorption rates for various crop varieties and products.

 Promoting public private partnerships, ABI incubates innovations that benefit farming communities, as well as enhancing value chains of these under-utilized crops. In particular, the NutriPlus Knowledge Program , helps transform the results of that research into products and processes, such as healthy sorghum or millet snacks.

The treatment of severe malnutrition in complex environments such as humanitarian operations includes ready-to-eat therapeutic feeding solutions using some of ICRISAT mandate crops such as groundnut and chickpea (eg groundnut-based Plumpynut or chickpea "Wawa Mum" paste). ICRISAT is exploring partnerships with this sector.  

  • Influencing policies for sustainable nutrition action

Policies can promote better nutrition and agriculture, by encouraging demand and consumption of grain legumes and nutri cereals like sorghum and millets. It could be by including these crops in school feeding schemes like in Tamil Nadu, India. The Home Grown School Feeding programme is a very promising movement looking at procuring traditional nutritious food from local farmers for schools.

Seed policies should create incentives for farmers to grow such nutritious and resilient crops, and develop appropriate seed systems for dryland cereals and grain legumes like in Malawi for legume certified seed production. Another striking partnership is the HOPE World Food Programme P4P partnership where farmer groups in Mali could supply the humanitarian grain reserves with their sorghum production. 

  • The importance of assessing the nutrition impact of our research

To design nutrition-sensitive agriculture initiatives, it is important to understand agriculture and nutrition pathways.


Source: Adapted from Gillespie, Harris and Kadiyala, 2012

The complex and interlinked pathways between smallholder agriculture and nutrition outcomes shows that agricultural development does not necessarily improve nutrition within the household.

As one of the four CGIAR outcomes, nutrition should be integrated from the start in any agricultural research for development initiative.

Several indicators could be used such as monitoring the changes in diet diversity at household and individual level [eg ref 2010 FAO diet diversity score].

Biological indicators, such as anthropometric measurements (weight versus age and height) or finger-prick blood samples to measure micronutrient deficiencies (eg differences in hemoglobin for iron uptake) are more consistent, but may be costlier to set up, and require collaboration with health organizations.  

Finger millet experimental field (HOPE project)
Ethiopian boy eating chickpea (Tropical Legumes 2).
To improve nutrition you need an integrated approach, engaging with the right partners.
Under the Bhoochetana initiative in Karnataka, India, our partner Digital Green helps farmers produce their own videos in local languages to explain agricultural innovations [methodology used by the SPRING nutrition initiative in India].
Easing women's life with efficient crop processing for better adoption and family nutrition.
Children tasting a groundnut dish in Mali.
Crop diversity  is a way to adapt to the harsh environment and have a better balanced diet (ref CODEWA).
African Market Garden promotes vegetable production in the drylands.
Biofortified crops increase micronutrient intake.
Crop processing and food preparation methods such as malting or fermentation influence the bioavailability of micronutrients.

ICRISAT's aflatoxin detection kit improves  food safety.

Creating the right incentives for farmers to grow nutri-resilient crops: In Tanzania, sorghum is now included in the seed subsidy scheme.