Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A Message from IFAD’s President — A Renewed Focus on Nutrition

February 07, 2014

IFAD is a United Nations specialized agency and an international financial institution committed to providing investments that create a route out of poverty for rural people in the developing world, most of whom are involved in agriculture. While our mandate and commitment are unchanged, the context of our work is rapidly evolving, and we are taking steps to adapt. In recent years we have created the Environment and Climate Division, the Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP) multi-donor trust fund, the Strategy and Knowledge Department, and new policies on gender and other issues. We are serious about tackling the problems that smallholder farmers face, and that necessitates adapting to changes in the development landscape.

As a result, we are increasing our commitment of resources to issues related to nutrition. This may be surprising, since nutrition has been a concern of IFAD from the start and improving nutrition was embodied in the Agreement Establishing IFAD. And much has been achieved nutritionally over the course of IFAD’s existence through focusing on smallholder farmers and on women, who do most of the agricultural labour and are particularly vulnerable.

But in spite of our achievements, we can—and need—to do more. Even small adjustments to IFAD investments to make them more nutrition-sensitive could have an impressive impact on nutrition outcomes.  Investments that are nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive can help re-shape agricultural production and the food system as a whole in ways that improve nutrition. 

We can categorize some investments as having a primarily nutritional purpose, such as biofortified staple crops or home vegetable gardens. They  improve nutrition and dietary intake and quality, though they have other benefits as well--for example, some biofortified crops may command higher prices in the market, or be more disease-resistant or adapted to micronutrient-deficient soils.

But other actions not specifically aimed at nutrition can still affect it.  For example, higher productivity and income can increase rural people’s access to a greater variety of foods. Improved marketing and storage infrastructure can lead to lower relative prices for fruits, vegetables, fish and livestock products, making them more affordable. Empowerment of women can improve their and their families’ nutrition.   

To eradicate malnutrition, of course, is a complex endeavor. Our work must be complemented with actions in other sectors, particularly health, education, and water and sanitation. But good nutrition still begins with food and agriculture. A food-based approach also ensures a sound foundation for nutrition throughout our life cycle. With adequate resources and knowledge, mothers can often draw on local foods to prepare an adequate diet rich in energy and micronutrients for their young children.  And with more nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems, older children and adults will be able to make the choices they need to consume a more nutritious diet – ensuring that the food they eat gives them the whole complex of macro- and micronutrients they need.

 ...good nutrition still begins with food and agriculture. A food-based approach also ensures a sound foundation for nutrition throughout our life cycle.The human cost of inaction

Improving nutrition is still a massive, unfinished agenda. In 2011, there were 165 million children with stunted growth, leading to compromised cognitive development and physical abilities. Every day more than 8,000 children die from preventable causes related to undernutrition.  We can’t let another generation be scarred by hunger and malnutrition.  

IFAD is well-positioned through its presence in countries where its investments can also support efforts to increase agriculture’s contribution to improved nutrition. Many of the countries where we work in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia will not be able to break out of poverty or sustain economic advances when so much of their population is unable to achieve the level of nutrition that is needed for a healthy and productive life.  Undernutrition is responsible for the loss of billions of dollars in productivity; it is estimated that an amount equal to 11% of GDP in Africa and Asia is lost to undernutrition every year, with productivity losses to individuals of more than 10% of lifetime earnings. This is a staggering loss  – the value of goods and services that countries in Africa and Asia could and should have produced, but didn’t, equals billions of dollars.  

More than 4 in 10 children under the age of five are undernourished in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and about 7-15% of children in those regions are wasted (very thin). Many of these countries have prioritized nutrition and are at  the heart of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement. IFAD can help to deliver progress and action to scale up nutrition in these SUN countries because we are already very active in almost all of them.

Failure to expand, sharpen and accelerate our efforts on nutrition will impose a heavy cost in wasted opportunities.   

There is broad  agreement that there can be no eradication of poverty without dealing with nutrition. When farm families are malnourished, they are less productive, and the children suffer long-term damage. Improving the nutrition of farming populations not only reduces the number of undernourished people, but also increases agricultural productivity and contributes to a thriving agricultural economy. Thus, nutrition is not a sideshow to our central work of combatting rural hunger and poverty; it is central and even essential to that mission.  

 ...nutrition is not a sideshow to our central work of combatting rural hunger and poverty … it is central and even essential to that mission.

Next steps

We have to start from the premise that agriculture needs to provide greater and more comprehensive attention to nutrition. We can build on actions we know have direct or indirect impact on nutrition, as described above.  Leveraging food supply chains to improve nutrition and scaling-up the use of biofortified staple crops -- rich in essential micronutrients -- hold much promise.

We should focus on actions that will optimize agriculture’s contribution to the nutrition of rural people, especially women and children, while at the same time being sensitive to gender and impacts on environmental sustainability.  

If better nutrition is going to be a goal,  that goal needs to be measurable. We will be investing in project designs that incorporate nutritional considerations, and following-up with good evaluations and rigorous assessments to gather evidence that our activities are improving nutrition, especially for children under five.  IFAD’s overall results measurements framework for 2013-2015 includes chronic child malnutrition (i.e. height for age, or stunting) as one of the two anchor indicators to measure IFAD’s impact on the ground.

IFAD is also collaborating with the CGIAR’s Agriculture for Nutrition and Health Program (A4NH), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the new Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition to increase knowledge of which agriculture and food systems can in fact accelerate progress and have a substantial effect on nutrition.  With the assistance of  Canada, we have launched an initiative to mainstream nutrition perspectives into projects and programmes right from the start.  More recently, with support from Germany, we are developing nutrition-sensitive value chains for smallholders in middle-income countries. Partnerships and  knowledge exchange will continue to be an important part of our future work on nutrition, and I look forward to working with our members and partners to ensure that IFAD-funded programmes contribute to greater access to nutritious foods and high-quality diets for the rural poor, particularly women and children.

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