Stunting rates in South Asia remain high despite the potential for agriculture to address malnutrition. In an article in the Food and Nutrition Bulletin, researchers from IFPRI and partnering institutions in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh evaluated the institutional and political factors influencing nutrition-sensitive agriculture. The research was facilitated by the Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) research consortium which seeks to assess how agriculture and food-related policies can be best leveraged to improve nutrition in the region.
A mapping exercise was carried out in 2012 in order to identify the key players in the agriculture and nutrition landscape of each one of the studied countries. Consequently, interviews were conducted in 2013 and 2014 with a total of 56 stakeholders representing international organizations, research, government and civil society, as well as donors and the private sector. A total of 22 stakeholders interviewed in India, 13 in Bangladesh and 21 in Pakistan, were asked about their views on the political and institutional context and dynamics related to nutrition-sensitive agriculture in their countries, their knowledge about agriculture–nutrition linkages, and their perceptions of the availability of relevant data and evidence.
Views on the political and institutional context of agriculture and nutrition differed among stakeholders. Interviewees from the government, industry and multilateral organizations expressed that nutritional considerations are starting to be deliberated in agricultural policies and programs. They reported that several Indian states have started to invest in bio-fortification and nutrition-sensitive agriculture, pushing forward policies such as horticultural produce, promoting nutrient-rich agriculture in rural areas, and promoting the inclusion of nutrition in agriculture departments in universities.
Conversely, other interviewees from the government, media, research, and civil societies expressed that nutritional policy and programming have shifted away from pulses, vegetables, fruits, micronutrients and traditional farming systems; as well as showing a lack of continuity, efficiency, and effective coordination from ministries and other responsible offices from the Central government. Additionally, interviewees expressed that factors such as a lack of evidence on cost-effective interventions, high operational costs, and lack of skilled agricultural labor, among others, hindered the application of nutrition-sensitive policies and programs.
Regarding actions to improve nutrition-sensitive agriculture, stakeholders expressed that government actors are addressing nutrition by developing training modules for NGO and government staff, and also by encouraging local production of pulses and vegetables for feeding programs, as well as promoting researching on bio-fortification making existing programs more nutrition sensitive.
When asked about the possibilities to offer input or influence on policy formulation, stakeholders reported that nutrition policies are formulated based on consultation processes that do not always use evidence in their development, and when they do, policy makers not often have the time to scrutinize it, or are pressured by interest groups or lobbies. Stakeholders reported that opportunities for influencing policy formulation arise when evidence about interesting programs that can be replicated is communicated in a way that is accessible to policy makers whom show more interest before elections and around the time long term plans are being developed.
Stakeholders also expressed that besides making sure research findings are taken into account in policy-making processes, it is important to have engagement with policy makers. Another common necessity they expressed is the need to raise awareness among policy makers and communities about the importance of nutrition so that interventions can be funded and implemented properly. Influence and pressure by Civil Society organizations and the media were also reported to be a valuable influence upon accountability mechanisms. Collaboration on nutrition between sectors is needed to improve the correct implementation of nutrition sensitive policies.
Stakeholders showed mixed knowledge on agriculture-nutrition linkages. The majority of interviewees highlighted the production and income pathways through which agriculture affects nutrition. Some interviewees also highlighted the impact of agricultural policies on prices, the importance of women’s empowerment as ways to improve the nutrition of households and the important role that plays the improvement of agricultural technologies to help agriculture become more nutrition sensitive.
Based on the stakeholder’s responses and a policy review for all countries, authors conclude the study by identifying important issues to improve the nutrition sensitivity of the agricultural sector in South Asia; including: i) facilitating coordination among country departments; ii) collecting and analyzing high quality data on agriculture, nutrition and health; iii) evaluating agriculture–nutrition policy processes; iv) communicating research findings in a timely manner to policy makers; v) strengthening technical capacities at all levels to expand nutrition literacy; and vi) improving the use of existing financial resources for nutrition-sensitive agriculture.