Panel: Leveraging nutrition impacts from horticulture research


A panel focused on leveraging nutrition impacts from horticulture research brought together professionals for a lively discussion about the ways that food systems can be transformed to promote nutrition during the Horticulture Research for Development Conference, "Colorful Harvest: From Feeding to Nourishing a Growing World," held March 26-27, 2019, in Washington, D.C. This nutrition-focused panel included:

  • Rafael Flor, Director of YieldWise at The Rockefeller Foundation 
  • Shibani Ghosh, Research Associate Professor for the Nutrition Innovation Lab at Tufts University
  • Jim Simon, Professor at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
  • Valerie Davis, Senior Technical Advisor at Catholic Relief Services.

Topics of discussion included a look at how food systems must change to meet nutritional needs, an analysis of how efforts to boost horticulture production impacts nutrition, African Indigenous Vegetables and the supply-side of nutritional horticultural products.  

Rafael Flor: Transforming our food system to improve environmental and public health

Flor's presentation highlighted the ways that our current food system needs to be transformed to better serve the health of our planet and its people. If consumption and production patterns persist, agriculture will significantly miss greenhouse gas emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Climate change is expected to have the greatest impact on undernourishment due to reduced yields and nutritional content of crops; Africa is particularly vulnerable to these negative impacts.

He highlighted that consumers eat unhealthy diets that lead to disease and environmental damage. Americans eat 6 times more beef than is recommended for planetary and human health and over consume other harmful foods, while under consuming protective foods like fruits and vegetables. Obesity prevalence is projected to rise to 42 percent by 2030, adding $550 billion in healthcare costs.

There are 41 countries around the world facing the "triple burden" of malnutrition, with 30 of these countries in Africa. The World Health Organization predicts that the region’s death toll from noncommunicable diseases — for which unhealthy diet is a main risk factor — will surpass that of communicable, maternal, perinatal, and nutritional diseases combined by 2030. 

He pointed out that while the fight against malnutrition has had big wins, new challenges are on the horizon. Undernourishment persists, but has declined significantly over time, while the prevalence of overweight and obesity is on the rise, along with diet-related noncommunicable diseases. 

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), encouraging the adoption of the minimum-risk diet is the single intervention that holds the most potential for improving human health outcomes, as by 2050, most preventable deaths will be diet-related. 

Shibani Ghosh: Impacts of horticulture on nutrition and diet quality in rural Bangladesh

Ghosh's presentation analyzed impacts of horticulture and aquaculture interventions on diets in Bangladesh, with findings from a Nutrition Innovation Lab project in collaboration with the Horticulture Innovation Lab. She posed the question as: What systemic effect does USAID’s support for aquaculture and horticulture have on production of nutrient-dense foods, marketing of nutrient-dense foods, diets and nutrition? 

Her slides show that infants whose householders were engaged in aquaculture and horticulture production were more likely to have diets that included animal-source foods and 4 or more food groups. Infants whose families grew horticultural crops were about 10 percent more likely to consume animal source protein and about 15 percent more likely to consume 4 or more food groups than those whose families were not engaged in horticulture production. These results were adjusted to wealth, education, age of the child and gender of household head.

Mothers with increasing age, higher education, increasing wealth, and more diverse diets were more likely to be overweight or obese. And there did not appear to be significant differences in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages or snacks and sweets between households based on their involvement in horticulture or aquaculture.

Research findings highlighted that there is a need for postharvest technologies to improve access to nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, and animal-source foods), to reduce waste, improve food safety and increase shelf life. The research tested three postharvest technologies: CoolBot cool rooms, chimney solar dryers, and floating gardens and measured increases in child diet diversity.

A graph from Ghosh's presentation showing the effect access to postharvest technologies have had on childhood dietary diversity
Ghosh mapped the effect that the introduction of posthavest technologies in rural Bangladesh have had on childhood dietary diversity.

Some initial findings in relation to each o the postharvest technologies in this research project:

  • CoolBot cool rooms improved farmers' ability to negotiate prices as well as food safety, but require a stable electric supply. There is also a limited availability of commercial vendors for these cool rooms. 
  • Chimney solar dryers reduced losses, improved food safety and increased shelf life and incomes. However, the size of the dryer was a barrier for increasing profit margins. 
  • Floating gardens increased access to fruits and vegetables and were pesticide-free, but were limited by their season usefulness and attracted insects and rodents.

Key nutrition and horticulture takeaways from Bangladesh

Dietary diversity and animal-source food consumption in early life is associated with engagement in aquaculture and/or horticulture. While diets are becoming more nutrient dense, consumption of packaged and processed foods is increasing (as measured through expenditure). Overweight and obesity rates in women are increasing — which may point to future policy and programmatic implications of nutrition transition and the co-existence of the triple burden.  

Jim Simon: Linking African indigenous vegetables to improved nutrition

Simon's presentation discussed approaches and key takeaways from the Horticulture Innovation Lab project he leads that is focused on improving nutrition with African indigenous vegetables in Kenya and Zambia

Simon started off by asking: What is the role for traditional vegetables and indigenous foods, in relation to hunger, income generation, health, and food security? He sees that African indigenous vegetables can provide significant opportunities to:

  • increase income
  • diversify diets
  • provide vitamins and minerals often lacking in single-commodity based diets (cassava, maize/corn, rice)
  • adapt diets to environmental stresses from climate change

He points out that African indigenous vegetables are known to more than 90 percent of the populations in Kenya and Zambia and viewed as culturally acceptable, desirable food options, but they are still only consumed rarely or periodically in urban areas. This could represent an un-met market demand of more than $100,000,000 per year. Furthermore, African indigenous vegetables can provide high income generation (with multiple harvests and seasons per year) and provide crop and dietary diversification options when assisted by a systems approach that enhances access, availability, and adoption. Even greater awareness in communities of these vegetables' nutritional and health value coupled with recipe development and other behavior change communications interventions can further drive consumption and market demand.

Simon explained that the Horticulture Innovation Lab project he leads focuses on the "4 A's" which are: access, affordability, availability, and adoption (increased consumption). Started in 2014, some key takeaway from the fifth year of this project include:

  • The team's market-first, science-driven models work. The process includes surveys and focus groups focused on what is currently consumed versus what they would consume. The model is an effective way to plan interventions and build-in sustainability strategies from the outset, with the behavior change study (BCC) venues identified by community members.
  • Newly introduced African indigenous vegetables lines (mostly originating from collaboration with the World Vegetable Center) are well accepted by growers, align with improved nutrient composition, and must still meet grower’s field performance needs, market acceptability and consumer (buyers) needs (taste, preferences) while fitting into agricultural enterprises. 
  • Educational and outreach programs are effective in increasing interest and awareness of the benefits of African indigenous vegetables.

Simon also focuses on the many collaborations needed for success that ties nutrition and horticulture together, with partners and champions including the private sector, governments, NGOs, researchers, smallholder farmers, public health policymakers, seed developers, funders and local educators. 

He discussed upcoming opportunities for improving the value chain of African indigenous vegetables, including:

  • Global shift in research and development from a production paradigm to a market-first paradigm. 
  • Realization of economic, cultural and environmental impacts of indigenous plants for commerce, trade and value in improving health.
  • Including local and regional preferences for the wide diversity of African indigenous vegetables and linking food choices with plants nutritional richness and consumer understanding.
  • Ensuring safe, available and affordable water for irrigation for year-round production, as well as access to other growing materials and land.
  • Merging of engineering with food systems, introducing green technologies to support horticulture.
  • Innovative systems to ensure social, economic and environmental sustainability.
  • Urban and peri-urban farming from sack gardens to intensive protective cultivation and vertical farming.
  • Shift from donor development focus to private sector development.

Valerie Davis: Supply-side options for nutritious horticulture products

Davis focused on the supply side of horticulture for nutrition, including markets and home production.  She compared gardens, with the primary purpose of nutrition and crops grown to fill dietary gaps, with market-driven value chains, where income is the main purposes and crops are selected for profitability first and nutrition second.

Common considerations whether for both market- and garden-based horticultural production include: soil quality, seed supply, water resources, postharvest storage and processing, women's workload and energy, and knowledge of the nutritional benefits of horticulture.

Considerations for supplying horticulture and nutrition via gardening activities include aligning the garden types with context, aligning crops with nutrient gaps, seasonal planning and diversifying over time, and complementary activities. 

Considerations in achieving nutrition goals via horticulture as part of a value chain or as a market supplier requires demand creation, use of income for nutrition, and impact investment with the private sector. 




Value Chain