Climate smart agriculture should be nutrition smart too

Climate smart agriculture should be nutrition smart too. Photo: Lima COP20

Patrick Webb argues that the promotion of climate smart agriculture represents an opportunity for agriculture to be more nutrition smart than in the past – a four-way win for all.

As the United Nations meet in Peru to further discussion the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), a lot of attention is being paid to threats: the potential losses of productivity and yields linked to projected changes in temperature and rainfall, the damage likely to be caused by predicated weather anomalies, and the risks facing poor smallholders the world due to livelihood uncertainty. But not enough attention is being paid to opportunities.

That policymakers are finally focusing on climate change presents a window for dialogue on how nutrition smart agriculture would support climate change goals. The World Bank and FAO talk of a ‘triple win’ from success adaptation of agriculture to climate change, including increased productivity and farm-based incomes, enhanced community resilience and  reduced vulnerability to shocks, and reducing emissions.[1] Each of these is an important goal, and governments must do their utmost to agree on targets and ways to reach them.

But that’s not enough. We need a four-way win. Nutrition smart agriculture is essential to achieving other global goals, including the targets set for improved nutrition by the World Health Assembly in 2012[2], and those for food security and nutrition agreed to at the second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in Rome in November 2014.[3]  A host of known techniques that can support nutrition through enhanced soil fertility and diversity of output include nitrogen sequestration by planting certain trees, enhancing the quality of seeds used (that resist pests and droughts), more targeted use (and re-use) of water through micro-irrigation, green mulching and enhanced post-harvest storage to prevent losses. Famers and herders the world over, often women, need appropriate support (knowledge, financing, institutional backing) to pursue innovations. The risks inherent in doing things differently must be turned around; the poorest rural households must see tangible gains in becoming adopters of breakthrough practices.

However, new investment is also needed in frontier research that protects major crops from losing nutrient value in the context of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. We need new technologies to shield plants from molds and pests that are increasingly virulent in the context of altered climates. And greater attention is needed to mechanisms (social safety nets, feeding programmes that link meal provision (say, in schools) to local contract farming, etc. ) that protect the consumption levels and dietary quality of the poor in the face of increasing food price volatility.

Nutrition is not just about food; but it is about having sufficient quantity, quality (safety), and diversity of food choices to meet the needs of all infants and adolescents and mothers and men. Nutrition is not just about nutrients; but it is about how nutrients interact with each other in the matrix of meals, how they foods are processed, and how they support the mental and physical growth that underpins social and economic development.[4] An enhancement of diverse and resilient production systems that generate quality foods and reliable income for the poor through effective trade and retail systems lies at the intersection of climate change, agriculture and nutrition goals. The promotion of climate smart agriculture therefore represents an opportunity for agriculture to be more nutrition smart than in the past – a four-way win for all.