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Feeding the world: addressing gender divides could help reduce malnutrition

Our modern food system is a double-edged sword: delivering chronic under-nutrition due to shortages of nutritious food, and chronic obesity due to overconsumption. In Australia, we’re living among 60…

Women comprise 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. CGIAR Climate

Our modern food system is a double-edged sword: delivering chronic under-nutrition due to shortages of nutritious food, and chronic obesity due to overconsumption. In Australia, we’re living among 60% of adults and 25% of children who are overweight or obese. But if you live next door in Timor-Leste, you face a childhood stunting rate of 60%, due to malnutrition.

Recent estimates suggest that as much as 11% of gross national product in Africa and Asia is lost annually as a result of malnutrition. The economic costs of under-nutrition include direct costs such as the increased burden on the health-care system, and indirect costs of lost productivity.

We’re also increasingly realising that gender is a critical dimension to these nutritional issues – and addressing disparities in this area may be the key to improving nutrition in the developing world.

Changing the way we think about famine

For the greater part of the 20th century, undernourishment was misdiagnosed as a lack of food, and agricultural activity worked to rectify it by increasing food production and agricultural productivity. The yields of maize, wheat and rice all increased. But with increasing yields came decreased nutritional diversity.

From the late 1970s, and particularly after the seminal work on poverty and famines by Amartya Sen, malnutrition was linked to food security rather than food availability. The world has realised that increasing food production alone, while ignoring distributional issues, will not be sufficient to eradicate malnutrition, unless the poorest can access food readily.

It may come as a surprise that women comprise 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries and account for two-thirds of the world’s 600 million poor livestock keepers. In sub-Saharan African countries, women provide 60% to 80% of the labour for food production and most of the post-harvest management.

But women farmers' yield is usually less than that of men because they are denied access to the same resources such as information, seeds and tools.

Women account for two-thirds of the world’s poor livestock keepers. Robyn Alders

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has also found that female farmers receive only 5% of all agricultural extension services across 97 countries, and only 10% of total aid for agriculture, forestry and fishing goes to women.

The FAO says that given equal access to resources, women would achieve the same yield levels as men, boosting total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5% to 4%. This additional yield could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 100 to 150 million or 12% to 17%.

Research also indicates that resources under the control of women are more likely to be used to support the education and nutrition of children.

So, what can we do?

While agriculturalists have been busy focusing on agricultural production, multilateral agencies such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, have been supporting a range of micronutrient fortification and supplementation efforts in many countries to improve human nutrition – with some success.

But the long-term sustainability of these interventions is being questioned by both donors and national ministries. As external donor funding phases out, many national governments have difficulty finding adequate funding to continue these programs.

National and multilateral agencies are seeking sustainable solutions to the food security challenge that will deliver better human nutrition through improved household income and dietary diversification.

As the human population increases and arable land becomes increasingly scarce, a spectrum of research activities is needed, rather than putting all of our eggs in the high-tech basket. Policy reforms, reducing food wastage and increased efficiency of smallholder farmers have a role to play and each will require a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving.

A new five-year project, in collaboration with the governments of Tanzania and Zambia, aims to do just this: strengthen household nutrition and reduce childhood stunting by building on women’s roles in poultry management and crop growth. This approach requires low investment and can contribute significantly to both poverty alleviation and food security.

Family poultry have a special place in food and nutrition security as they are owned by the majority of households and are frequently the only livestock under the control of women. Crops such as sunflower, millet and sorghum are often under women’s control and provide flexibility in the face of variable climate, a broader range of nutrients than hybrid maize and a way of managing farmer risk.

The lessons learnt and research findings generated will be a step in the right direction for global food security, which is based on good farming practises, implemented by well-informed and well-paid farmers. Gender equity is inherent in such measures, and will help us achieve sustainable food systems. It isn’t just an ethical move, it’s a smart one too.

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28 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Croft

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Well said Robyn, and what you have described as a smart and ethical solution to global food security is called food sovereignty.

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    1. Robyn Alders

      Principal Research Fellow and Associate Professor - food security, international agricultural research at University of Sydney

      In reply to Michael Croft

      Many thanks Michael. I'm aware of the food sovereignty movement internationally and look forward to learning more about it's activities in Australia.

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  2. Federico Davila

    PhD Candidate, Human Ecology Program at Australian National University

    Robyn, great works. Thank for once again highlighting the fact that technical solutions and productivity is not sufficient to fully address the holistic issues that exist in food systems.

    Large scale international development programs and privately funded programs remain focused on output and growth, and fail to address the root causes of poverty and hunger through tackling social contexts in which agriculture exists in.

    A comment on Tanzania. The ACIAR project sounds interesting. You may…

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    1. Valerie Kay

      PhD candidate, public health

      In reply to Federico Davila

      A fellow student of mine a few years ago was from an African nation and I remember her saying that as long as you have a garden you will have some food. So often policy ( especially but i think not exclusively neoliberal policy) fails to recognise the role of non-market, subsistence activities, often done by women.

      We also seem to hear very little about things like the Campesina movement here in Australia http://viacampesina.org/en/

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    2. Robyn Alders

      Principal Research Fellow and Associate Professor - food security, international agricultural research at University of Sydney

      In reply to Federico Davila

      Thanks so much for your comments Federico. I would be keen to read the report on your work in Tanzania if possible.

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    3. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Federico Davila

      "Large scale international development programs and privately funded programs remain focused on output and growth, and fail to address the root causes of poverty and hunger through tackling social contexts in which agriculture exists in."
      I think the developing world is a lot better off with people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett taking leadership over development issues, compared to NGO/UN bureaucrats.

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    4. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Valerie Kay

      "So often policy ( especially but i think not exclusively neoliberal policy) fails to recognise the role of non-market, subsistence activities, often done by women."
      Valerie could you expand on this? For example name another type of policy - apart from 'Neoliberalism' - that so "fails..." And then an alternative policy that succeeds where these Neoliberal-type policies fail.

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    5. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to James Hulse

      Indeed. Or to be more accurate, "The Melinda Gates Foundation".

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    6. Valerie Kay

      PhD candidate, public health

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Hi Michael, it's been a while since I looked at these issues outside the Australian context - Frederico's comment just reminded me of when I was studying them a few years ago in the master of public health course, and particularly the comment by that particular fellow student, which I have never forgotten. So without doing some serious searching I couldn't give references. However from my own research which is mainly relevant to Australia, almost all mainstream economic measures fail to effectively…

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    7. Valerie Kay

      PhD candidate, public health

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      And even with that lengthy reply I didn't touch on alternative approaches that work - but I'm sure you could much usefully ask that question of people like Robyn and Frederico.

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    8. Federico Davila

      PhD Candidate, Human Ecology Program at Australian National University

      In reply to Valerie Kay

      Valerie, sorry for late response I only just logged into my account.

      I have spent some time working with Via Campesina in South Korea and South America - quite and incredible movement.

      If interested, you could look into the food sovereignty alliance (www.australianfoodsovereigntyalliance.org). They follow the VIa Campesina principles and ideas of food sovereignty.

      May also be interested in my article from last year? https://theconversation.com/feeding-the-world-with-a-mix-of-science-and-tradition-15693

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    9. Valerie Kay

      PhD candidate, public health

      In reply to Federico Davila

      Thanks Federico I will be interested to follow up both of these. Good luck with your work.

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  3. Tom Hennessy

    Retired

    "Family poultry have a special place in food and nutrition security"

    A special place alright, right there, as the reason their kid dies before five years old from infectious disease. This high iron food, meat, allows for increased absorption of the metal iron, which infectious disease use to proliferate in man. Proven with tuberculosis , presently being tested in malaria and shown to reduce parasite burden, by low iron diet.
    "Association of Pulmonary Tuberculosis with Increased Dietary Iron"
    "Management of dietary iron can therefore be influential in aiding the outcome of this disease"
    "NIH Receives Grant To Investigate Role Of Iron Supplements In Malaria"
    "Boosting infected people to moderate iron levels with supplements could put them in the ideal range for hungry hookworms"

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    1. Robyn Alders

      Principal Research Fellow and Associate Professor - food security, international agricultural research at University of Sydney

      In reply to Tom Hennessy

      Thanks very much for your comments Tim. Life indeed is a balancing act. As you point out, too much iron can be a problem. In many areas in sub-Saharan Africa, the problem is iron deficiency. Some additional background on the problem can be found at: http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ida/en/

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    2. Tom Hennessy

      Retired

      In reply to Robyn Alders

      "In many areas in sub-Saharan Africa, the problem is iron deficiency"

      There is no iron deficiency in the world, contrary to what you believe and everyone else believes. You are born with seven months worth of stored iron, you never deplete this iron, it is recycled, treated as if it were gold, we have no efficient method of excreting iron once we absorb it , so it is controlled at the point of absorption, just keeping the seven months worth of stored iron 'topped up', downregulating the percentage…

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    3. Jenna Cowie

      Dietitian

      In reply to Tom Hennessy

      Tom and Robyn, I wonder if you have any details on this you could send. Here in NW Western Australia there is a lot of 'iron deficiency' going on but I often wonder if our reference ranges are based on studies on people of European ancestry and therefore not striclty relevant. Could Indigenous children possible have lower 'requirements' for the purposes of protection against such diseases? Should our reference ranges be lower? Certainly other tools used to measure malnutrition are out of whack, such as the SGA used to meausre risk of malnutrition in older people. It uses calf and upper arm circumference, which is problematic in the Indigenous population as their limbs are generally very thin (compared to the Anglo population) regardless of nutrition status.

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    4. Tom Hennessy

      Retired

      In reply to Jenna Cowie

      This study of the poor can be extrapolated pretty much anywhere.

      "There are multiple causes of severe anemia in Malawian preschool children, but folate and iron deficiencies are not prominent among them."
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18305266

      This is a short snip from a twenty year old book and you will notice he hypothesised the only way to find out if iron fortified formula in kids may cause harm is by doing a large study, the study was completed and it looks like he was right…

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    5. Tom Hennessy

      Retired

      In reply to James Hulse

      Chicken contains blood, the easiest form of iron to absorb, plus it causes other iron ingested at the same time to be absorbed too.

      "Beef and chicken muscle increased iron absorption 180%"

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    6. Tom Hennessy

      Retired

      In reply to James Hulse

      The hypothesis of menses is to lower the iron / oxidation, for the safe gestation of an egg. Menses do not cause a woman to lose more iron than she takes in. Woman are not bleeding to death. In fact the reason women do not get heart attacks until they hit menopause is thought to be due to the fact they lose iron in their menses, keeping their iron levels appreciably lower than men, whose heart attack rates are higher than women until women hit menopause, begin to load iron, and begin to have heart attacks that rival men.
      "Is Iron A killer?"

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    7. Jenna Cowie

      Dietitian

      In reply to James Hulse

      This is true when comparing breast to red meat (other than chicken liver) but per 100g eggs are not far off - presumably people are eating the breast plus liver plus eggs plus everything else on the animal

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  4. John Troughton

    ANU Alumni

    Late 1970's? The approach is old. But is the execution good enough? This is the country where Frank McDougall and Prime Minister S. M. (Viscount) Bruce learnt their trade and combined nutrition and production ("Marry health and agriculture") to promote and start the FAO on 16 October 1945. FAO is the oldest permanent specialised agency of the United Nations, with the objective of eliminating hunger and improving nutrition and standards of living by increasing agricultural productivity. Wendy Way brings alive the history of this unique Australian team in the book, "A New Idea Each Morning". May that tradition of creativity and innovation continue in Australia and globally. Australia (Crawford and Coombs) approved of the idea as raising health and nutrition standards involved economic policies ‘designed to promote higher levels of income and employment'.

    Perhaps we should discuss how the $1B annually from this one source alone should be better managed. Part of this is your money.

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    1. Robyn Alders

      Principal Research Fellow and Associate Professor - food security, international agricultural research at University of Sydney

      In reply to John Troughton

      Many thanks John for your comment. I have not read "A New Idea Each Morning" but will put it on my reading list.
      Our project will focus on food and nutrition security which, as you say, is not a new idea even though it has received little attention over the past few decades. The new angle that we bring to it is the emphasis on involving women and the agricultural products and activities under their control. We'll be sure to share our progress as we go along.

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    2. John Troughton

      ANU Alumni

      In reply to Robyn Alders

      Thanks and I appreciate the effort. Will include this in World Food Day this year but planning to combine Rural Women's Day and WFD next year if possible.

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    3. Robyn Alders

      Principal Research Fellow and Associate Professor - food security, international agricultural research at University of Sydney

      In reply to John Troughton

      Wonderful, thanks so much for making contact John. The combination of events sounds like a very good idea. Please let us know if we can assist in any way.

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