When we think of food production, ecosystem health, and human wellbeing, one crucial element is often not mentioned: nutrition. Nutrition is everyone’s business and no one’s responsibility, as the saying goes. But we know that one of the world’s greatest challenges is to secure adequate food that is healthy, safe and of high quality for all, and to do so in an environmentally sustainable manner. How can we ensure that people, food and nature are protected and persevere while at the same time, ensuring nutrition is adequately addressed?
The notion that nutrition, agricultural productivity, and environmental sustainability are interrelated has been termed ‘econutrition’ by colleagues at Columbia University, with the idea that addressing malnutrition can be gained by linking agriculture and ecology to human nutrition and health. As Remans et al. (2012) notes, “biodiversity hotspots and hunger hotspots overlap, and although the intellectual paths of agronomists, ecologists, and nutritionists rarely cross, their geographic extensions are the same. The areas where there is hunger, loss of biodiversity, and a need for improved agricultural systems are largely identical.” And nutritious food can be considered an ecosystem service, where local food systems and ecologically-healthy and sustainable food supply chains are important for human well-being.
With the growing demand of an ever-increasing human population, it remains unclear how our current global food system, and our planet, will sustain itself. That very same system that is churning out food for the world through agriculture, the backbone of human society since prehistoric times, is not equitable, and for the most part, is not resulting in quality, nutritious foods found on our dinner plates. There are an estimated 925 million who are undernourished, and 180 million children under five years of age are chronically undernourished resulting in stunted growth and underdeveloped brains, many living in just 36 countries. On the other side of the coin, we are experiencing “globesity” with 1.3 billion overweight or obese.
Agriculture, environment, and health sectors must learn to work together to address themassive malnutrition situation that 2 billion people are burdened with. This is not a new idea – as this marriage was called for over thirty years ago. But times are changing – we now have momentum like never before. Movements such as the Scaling Up Nutrition, the 1000 days Initiative, the Committee on World Food Security, the UN Renewed Efforts Against Child Hunger (REACH) Initiative, and many other regional, national and local grassroots movements are carrying the torch and calling for more nutrition ‘sensitive’ programming. This requires agriculture and environment disciplines to incorporate aspects of nutrition, or at least, have nutrition security as one of its major goals beyond just food production. With Rio+20 and the potentially new Sustainable Development Goals, greener solutions to food production and preservation of landscapes and ecosystems are being called for. Nutrition integration includes such approaches as:
- Agricultural extension services promoting better crop diversity and biodiversity for improved nutrition
- Integrated agro-forestry systems that reduce deforestation and promote the sustainable exploitation of nutrient-rich non-timber forest products
- Integrated farming systems exploiting the synergies of horticulture, aquaculture, and small livestock rearing to reduce waste and expenses on agricultural inputs and increase food production diversity
- Improved post-harvest management to reduce losses in terms of quantity and nutrient content, which also contributes to nutrition security
- Education and communication for development strategies that strengthen local food systems and promote cultivation and consumption of local micronutrient-rich foods
In order to make the case that approaching nutrition as an ecosystem service is worthy of investment, researchers and practitioners will have to undertake more real-time operations research in different regional contexts on delivery system approaches like those listed above. FAO and Bioversity have called for mainstreaming nutrition into agriculture policies, including a new “sustainable diets” paradigm. According to the organizations, “sustainable diets are biodiversity-promoting, food-based diets meeting nutrient requirements while conserving and promoting sustainable ecosystems and human wellbeing, optimizing natural resources, and respecting environmental carrying capacity. Sustainable diets require a strong emphasis on local production, distribution and consumption, to reduce embedded energy, while others stress the need to prioritize incomes of farmers, associated workers as well as of the food industry or respecting and protecting cultures of consumers and communities.”