What Works: Improving Health with Agriculture

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By Evelyn Drawec

This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!

AVRDC-diets-International-Food-Policy-research-Institute-IFPRI-Medical-NAPACD-nutrition-vegetables

Farms and gardens can improve nutrition, health, and incomes of entire communities. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

In many rural areas, people are both sick and hungry. But some new agricultural projects worldwide are demonstrating that when supported properly, local farms and gardens can improve nutrition, health, and incomes of entire communities.

In chapter 3 of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, Abdou Tenkouano, director of AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center’s Regional Center for Africa in Tanzania, describes how growing vegetables can help address the “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiencies that affects some 1 billion people worldwide. “Vegetables are the best source of vitamins, micronutrients, and fiber required by the human body, and add much-needed nutritional diversity to staple-based diets,” according to AVRDC.   Amaranth, baobab, cowpea, dika, enset, moringa, and spider plant, are examples of such vegetables that not only taste good but are also a rich source of protein, calcium, and important micronutrients. These vegetables, however, are often considered weeds and have been ignored by international agricultural initiatives, “despite their important potential to help alleviate hunger in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Tekouano.

But learning how to grow and cultivate these vegetables is only one the first step, farmers and communities also need to learn how to cook and eat these vegetables. According to Tekouano, “Often vegetables are cooked for so long that they lose most of their nutrients. To solve that problem, women are receiving training from research institutes and extension agents about how to improve the nutritional value of cooked foods.”

Indigenous vegetables not only help alleviate micronutrient deficiencies but can also be useful in providing solutions to a range of health problems. The Community Garden Project in Nangabo, a small county in south central Uganda, is working to use agriculture to help support families who have one or more children with a physical disability. The project, being carried out in conjunction with the Nangabo sub-county Parents’ Association of Children with Disabilities (NAPACD), provides the families with training and materials to help them plant indigenous vegetables in their gardens. These vegetables diversify their gardens, providing them with year-round harvests, and a surplus that can be sold for a profit at local markets. By growing more varieties of vegetables, and enough to sell the remainder in the markets, the families have been able to increase their incomes so that they can pay their children’s’ medical bills.

In order to gain more support for agricultural projects, such as The Community Garden Project and those suggested by Tenkouano, on February 10, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) held a conference in New Delhi, India called Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health. The conference was held as a way to bring together policymakers, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, educators, and researchers to promote the potential of agriculture to sustainably reduce malnutrition and poor health for the world’s most vulnerable people. “The ultimate objective of this conference is to inform, influence, and catalyze action by key actors to better use investments in agriculture to achieve nutrition security and good health for the world’s poorest people,” according to IFPRI.

Abdou Tenkouano, The Community Garden Project, and IFPRI show how with more support for agriculture projects, entire communities can improve their health with more nutritious strains of vegetables, access to markets and resources, and increased incomes.

Do you know about any other innovative agriculture projects that are improving diets and health? Are you using agriculture to improve your own health? Tell Nourishing the Planet what works and have your answers featured on the blog. Email me at Dnierenberg@Worldwatch.org or tweet your response to @WorldWatchAg.

Evelyn Drawec is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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