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Got milk? (or meat or eggs)? The missing ingredients in global nutritional security

Hidden Hunger from Bob Caputo on Vimeo.

Watch this handsomely made film (with superb writing as well as videography), produced in 2010 by National Geographic‘s Bob Caputo (run-time: 26 minutes).

The New Agriculturist online magazine has shared some of the expert views on how to end malnutrition that were made at a Feeding the World conference organized by The Economist and held in Amsterdam in Jan 2013.

‘With millions suffering from malnutrition in both the developed and developing world, how can people be supported to adopt nutrient rich diets that are well-adapted to their local conditions and culture? How can smallholders be encouraged to grow crops that have high nutritional value? And what potential do biofortified crops have to address nutritional deficiencies?’

The 200 or so international expert participants of this high-profile conference recommended such worthwhile aims as increasing the dietary diversity of the poor, biofortifying some staple foods, promoting some minor as well as staple crop production and consumption, educating and empowering girls, and increasing research into better ways of tackling malnutrition. The New Agriculturist shares some specific views of participants here.

All well and good. But what seems to be missing is a rather old-fashioned, tried-and-tested means of improving human diets consisting almost exclusively of cheap cereals and tubers: that is, by adding some protein- and micronutrient-rich milk, meat and eggs to the diets. The addition of even very modest amounts of these so-called ‘animal-source foods’ to the diets of the poor and malnourished, particularly of women and children, significantly increases their health and nutrition and, among children, their cognitive abilities, with lifelong benefits to individuals, families, communities and nations.

Since most poor people in the world raise some farm animals as well as grow crops to make a living and feed themselves, what’s stopping them from consuming their own animal-source foods? Turns out poor households don’t consume much of what animal foods they produce, choosing to sell these high-quality foods instead, and use the money to buy cheaper, less nourishing, foods and to pay for school fees, medicines and other essentials for their families.

But as Bob Caputo shows in his fine documentary above, providing village women with a bit of micro-credit to scale up their livestock and other food enterprises, along with some basic training in child nutrition, can lead to truly transformative ‘win-win-win’ changes in child development, women’s empowerment and household economics alike. And the icing on the cake? (or animal-source food)? The loans are good business as well as good development, with the banking sector in Ghana jumping into the action, taking over the loans and greatly expanding the numbers of women covered. So a public good has quickly become a banking good as well.

Global Nutrition CRSP
One of the few research groups to investigate the importance of animal-source foods for the poor was the Global Livestock Collaborative Research Support Program (Global Nutrition CRSP), funded by the United States Agency for International Development and administered by Tufts University. Last November, Montague (Tag) Demment gave a presentation on ’30 years of CRSP research on animal source foods and child cognitive development’. Demment, associate vice president for international development at the Association of Public Land Grant Universities and former director of GL-CSRP, highlighted how CRSP activities have helped to bridge the gap between human nutrition and livestock research. His presentation reviewed the chronology and significance of research findings on the role on animal-source foods in human nutrition – particularly on child nutrition and cognitive development. In the 1980s the Human Nutrition CRSP conducted an observational survey study in Kenya, Mexico, and Egypt to address the question of how moderate malnutrition impacts human function. The results of the study showed that the quality of food consumed mattered more than quantity and that the consumption of animal-source foods was the best predictor of cognitive function. The Small Ruminant CRSP conducted a follow-up intervention study in one of the same initial Kenyan communities years later, collecting data on over 1,000 children over five years. Data showed that children who regularly ate meat scored approximately 20% higher on Raven’s test (a culturally blind intelligence test), spent more time in leadership behaviours, and had a greater percentage increase in active time than children who did not regularly eat meat.

ENAM Project
Later research conducted under a Global Livestock CRSP project on ‘Enhancing child nutrition through animal source food management (ENAM) implemented micro-credit programs and entrepreneurial and nutrition education interventions in three regions of Ghana. Assessing the effects of these interventions, project staff determined that the biggest barriers to getting meat into a child’s diet were a lack of income and lack of understanding of the nutritional needs of a child and benefits of animal-source foods. In response to these findings, women’s groups received both nutrition education and business development training, allowing them to start their own income generating activities. In addition to the nutrition impacts for the participants’ families, the project successfully created a partnership with Heifer International and rural banks. Over USD2 million has now been loaned by Ghanaian banks to women’s groups. Since the end of the CRSP project, the number of women’s groups has continued to grow, with many of the women using their profits to enroll their children in private schools.

Background on GL-CRSP
The goal of the Global Livestock Collaborative Research Support Program (GL-CRSP) is to increase food security and improve the quality of life of people in developing countries while bringing an international focus to the research, teaching and extension efforts of US institutions. This goal is to be met through collaboration between US land-grant institutions and national and regional institutions abroad that are active in livestock research and development. GL-CRSP is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and administered by the University of California at Davis.

Human nutrition emerged as a prominent theme in GL-CRSP programming, as it is considered a fundamental building block of development, and because animal-source foods had much to contribute to the nutrition and dietary diversity that affect child development. Building on the efforts of the Nutrition CRSP, the GL-CRSP is committed to investigating the role of human welfare and nutrition in development. Current GL-CRSP projects are focused on enhancing nutrition through animal source food management and income generating activities (ENAM Project), as well as investigating the role of animal source foods and diet in HIV infected individuals in Africa (HNP Project).

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