Nourishing Communities Through Holistic Farming

Fighting malnutrition is a complex challenge which no one can claim to solve on their own.  We need to consider the agriculture, nutrition, social, and health environment and respond with tailored solutions. Understanding the local context starts by working with farmers so together we can address constraints and spread better practices. Engaging the right partners across health and agriculture is also essential to ensure a sustainable impact on nutrition.   

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics ICRISAT, a member of the CGIAR consortium, partners with farmers, governments, researchers and NGOs to help farmers grow nutritious crops like chickpea, groundnut, pigeonpea, millet and sorghum. This helps their communities have more balanced diets and become more resilient to pests and drought.

Helping Farmers Promote Healthier Families

For example the HOPE project is increasing yields of finger millet in Tanzania through improved varieties which benefits families using this as a nutritious porridge for young children. Finger millet 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. HOPE is also encouraging better nutrition by understanding and responding to current constraints for women. By replacing pestle and mortars with village grinding machines, women farmers like  Zénabou Halilou from Niger have used the time freed from manually threshing and milling the grains, to pursue poultry farming and ensure her children have an evening meal. 

We know that growing more nutritious, diverse, and resilient food will benefit communities but how do we make sure this happens for families trapped in a cycle of drought, poor soils and malnutrition?

In Ethiopia, the Legumes 2 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. Tropical legumes like chickpea, groundnut, pigeonpeas and cowpeas are high in protein and also help naturally replenish the soil.

Promoting healthy diets and farm practices is a win win formula.

Giving Farmers a Voice

Diversification, crop rotation, inter cropping and good soil and water management will boost nutrition and livelihoods as seen by the Bhoochetana movement which has reached over 3 million farm households in Karnataka in India. This huge impact stems from tailored solutions being spread from within the community via motivated farmers (farm facilitators), trained by the government and scientists.

Bhoochetana’s success has encouraged the government to bring together 9 CGIAR centers to pilot a holistic approach where research expertise will be pooled together to benefit farming families. ICRISAT, who is leading this Bhoochetana Plus initiative, sees working with creative committed partners like Digital Green as essential to scaling up the impact on the ground. Digital Green trains farmers to make their own videos to share good practice. This has proven to help change behaviour and promote adoption.

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. We are now exploring ways for Digital Green to work with researchers and farm facilitators to ensure that nutrition and agriculture education at the village level happens through community members.

How Donors, Development organizations, and Governments Do Their Part

Policies can promote better nutrition and agriculture.

The Home Grown School Feeding programme is a very promising movement looking at procuring traditional nutritious food from local farmers. The Indian government recently followed a similar idea, calling for all states to include millet in the school feeding scheme as these are more nutritious than the wheat or rice based meals. However, nutrient rich food needs to be tasty as explained to me by a school principal in India. His students were more eager to eat millet noodles than the traditional millet flatbread. Early this year, South Indian state Tamil Nadu announced they would not only include millets as part of the mid day meal scheme but also try different recipes to see which children preferred.

Boosting nutrition through agriculture can be a powerful way to improve health. 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). This will not only provide business opportunities for women but also be more easily adopted by the community for the long term since it is based on a local recipe.

Donors including the foundation are supporting the development of drought tolerant pearl millet with even higher levels of iron as part of an effort to reduce the burden of anaemia. As explained in  my photo blog  on Alertnet, this research needs to be integrated within an ecosystem including nutrition awareness, diversified farms, better hygiene, sanitation and primary health care.

This is being tested in Mali where ICRISAT is part of an 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 zinc so using wholegrain is very beneficial) and infant food recipes using sorghum and millet mixed with nutritious traditional ingredients like baobab and moringa.

There is an exciting momentum that agriculture should not be just about quantity but must also be about quality and part of a holistic approach. We know that growing more nutritious, diverse, and resilient food will benefit communities but how do we make sure this happens for families trapped in a cycle of drought, poor soils and malnutrition? This is the challenge that the right partnerships on the ground will help solve.

by ICRISAT. All rights reserved.