|IFPRI Research Perspectives, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring 2000 (IFPRI, 2000, 16 p.)|
Can agricultural research have a more positive impact on the state of human nutrition? IFPRI organized a CGIAR-wide workshop in October to address this question. Hosted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and held in the Philippines, the workshop brought together 90 agricultural and nutrition scientists from around the world there. They discussed the merits of breeding staple food crops for micronutrient density and the need to give greater attention to existing food-based approaches for reducing malnutrition. Scientists from 10 CGIAR centers presented a variety of research explicitly driven by concern for human nutrition. Colleagues from universities and research organizations in developing and developed countries commented on the CGIAR presentations. Representatives from several multilateral, bilateral, and nongovernmental organizations also attended the meeting, which was sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the government of Norway.
TAKING STOCK OF CGIAR RESEARCH ON NUTRITION
Research findings from the IFPRI-coordinated research project Identifying Agricultural Strategies for Reducing Micronutrient Malnutrition provided a focus for many of the discussions. IFPRI and three other CGIAR centers - Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de May Trigo (CIMMYT), and IRRI - have teamed up with the University of Adelaide and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop micronutrient-dense staple food crops (rice, wheat, maize, beans, and cassava) using conventional breeding techniques, based on genetic material contained in international germplasm banks. The most progress has been made on rice: a high-yielding, disease-resistant, iron-dense, aromatic rice variety has been identified. Nutritionists are planning a feeding trial to test whether the extra iron in this specific variety can be absorbed by humans. A breeding strategy that gets plants to fortify themselves could provide a low-cost, sustainable way to reduce micro-nutrient malnutrition in humans.
Research scientists from eight CGIAR centers presented work on increasing the supply and consumption of nonstaple foods such as vegetables, fish, and livestock, while reducing the negative effects of naturally occurring toxins in the food system that inhibit nutrition and consequently human growth and development. The challenge for the future is to design research and programs so that their impact on the dietary quality and health of poor households is strengthened.
INTEGRATING AGRICULTURE INTO EXISTING MICRONUTRIENT PROGRAMS
For maximum effect, plant breeding and other agricultural strategies for reducing micro-nutrient malnutrition must be integrated into existing policies and programs: supplementation, fortification, and efforts to improve dietary quality and diversity. Workshop participants discussed micronutrient programs in the Philippines in depth, as a case study to give plant scientists some perspective on what programs are currently being implemented, their costs, their effectiveness, and their limitations. For example, the government of the Philippines spends over $20 million dollars annually for vitamin A fortification and supplementation programs alone. Despite the many agencies and actors already involved and the large amounts of funds being spent relative to the costs of agricultural research, much remains to be done to solve the problem.
WHAT IS NEXT?
Workshop participants agreed that more emphasis should be placed on agriculture's role in the fight against micronutrient and other forms of malnutrition among the poor. They identified research gaps and discussed what institutional arrangements would best meet the objective of getting the CGIAR more directly involved in fighting malnutrition.
On the research side, expanded funding is needed to accelerate the pace of breeding for improved nutrient density in CGIAR crops. Questions of genetic variability, interactions between new genotypes and the environment, and whether the best features of high-yielding varieties can be combined with micronutrient density have largely been answered. The question of whether these extra minerals and vitamins can be absorbed by humans is a high priority for research. And food systems need to be studied to identify how the supply of non-staple foods such as vegetables, livestock, and fish can be expanded for maximum nutritional benefit.
Institutionally, workshop participants agreed to undertake an initiative on human nutrition that would involve various disciplines and collaborative partnerships both inside and outside of the CGIAR. The first step in this endeavor will be to develop a framework for action that includes a range of food-based interventions.