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Push for traceable supply chains threatens smallholder farmers - Pearce (2013)

Push for traceable supply chains threatens smallholder farmers - Pearce (2013) | Food Policy |

Those who want effective policies to protect smallholders and promote sustainable landscapes need to do some serious thinking about how to handle agribusiness corporations – how to lobby, influence, co-opt and hold them to account.


One interesting early step on this road was taken at a meeting of NGOs, aid professionals and others... which debated how to push the agenda on community land rights. One of five strategy sessions running through the event was addressed at the private sector. It largely consisted of people from mining companies like Rio Tinto, food companies like Nestle, and banks like the International Finance Corporation, being cross-questioned by activists...


It was fascinating. A constant theme from those on the corporate side was that they were often lone voices within their companies, and that they felt poorly armed. They badly needed case studies, data and “simple effective story telling” to take to their CEOs. But few among those NGOs who knew about the problems were willing to make the case for sustainability, and being good neighbours and employers, in ways that would work with corporate bosses and their investors.


Too many pitches from NGOs sounded to CEOs like “communism or new-age stuff,” said finance analyst Lou Munden. “Corporations need to be told about the risks of ignoring land rights in terms that they understand,” he said, “because in this day and age, no land is empty.” Corporations needed to know that land grabbing was folly because it seriously raised the risks of local conflict that could result in failed projects and squandered investment. Corporations, he said, may not see human rights or environmental degradation as relevant to their bottom line, “but they understand corporate risk.” ...


“Agribusiness is far behind the mining sector and others in recognising land rights,” said Megan MacInnes, campaign leader at Global Witness. Chris Jochnick of Behind the Brands said most corporate social responsibility reports by big companies buying agricultural commodities “don’t even mention land”. Why is that? Is it because agricultural corporations are uniquely bad, or perhaps because those involved in defending smallholders and pastoralists have failed to press the case where it needs to be heard? ...


The social agenda in particular needs urgent attention. In some areas there is a real risk of that agenda being submerged by corporate responses to environmental activism. Let’s take the case of the huge food-to-soap combine Unilever which, among other things, is the world’s largest purchaser of palm oil... Just over a decade ago, worried about the long-term sustainability of its business — and in particular the supply of agricultural products like palm oil — it joined environment group WWF to establish the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The aim was to set environmental standards for an industry with a reputation for rainforest destruction.


But Unilever has found that the round table’s loose certification system cannot eliminate deforesters from supply chains, and efforts at reform have been slow. “It’s not good enough,” Gail Klintworth, the company’s global chief sustainability officer, told me. “We want 100 per cent traceability.” Unilever needed to know exactly where all its palm oil came from. And that turned out to be a problem. Unilever discovered that it had hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers feeding palm oil to mills owned by other companies that in turn sold to the company. Every one of those smallholders was, it felt, a potential deforester – a potential PR time bomb.


So here we are into the world of perverse incentives. To achieve “100 per cent traceability” Unilever has decided to cut the number of smallholder farmers who supply its palm oil – by 80 per cent... to ensure standards”. It was not he said, that the smallholders were bad guys, but that for a large corporation they were untraceable and therefore a risk... The result is a greater reliance on large palm oil plantations and a further turn of the land grabbing screw – all in the name of green ethics.


While Greenpeace has been pressing hard for the company to deliver a traceable supply chain that could demonstrate no deforestation – and by some accounts threatened to “destroy’ Dove, the company’s top soap brand, if it did not act – nobody, so far as I could establish, has been insisting that the company should stick with its smallholders... “no deforestation” is a powerful slogan that many companies are willing to adopt. The phrase appears in board room agendas and annual reports. But as yet similar attention is rarely paid to “no exploitation” or “no land grabbing”. Somehow the voices demanding these things do not get heard in the places where it matters.

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Interesting perspective on the unintended consequences of first-world labelling requirements on the livelihoods of smallholders in poor countries. 

AckerbauHalle's curator insight, October 25, 2013 1:49 PM

Die Fragen der Kennzeichnung einmal aus einer anderen Perspektive - es gibt auch Verlieren!

Food Policy
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Rethinking the Measurement of Undernutrition in a Broader Health Context: Should We Look at Possible Causes or Actual Effects? - Stein (2014) - Global Food Security

Rethinking the Measurement of Undernutrition in a Broader Health Context: Should We Look at Possible Causes or Actual Effects? - Stein (2014) - Global Food Security | Food Policy |

When measuring food and nutrition security, focusing on proxy indicators such as food availability, or on selected head count figures such as stunting rates, gives an incomplete picture. Outcome-based global burden of disease (GBD) studies offer an alternative for monitoring the burden of chronic and hidden hunger. Judging by this measure, the international goal of halving global hunger between 1990 and 2015 has already been achieved.


Disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) that are used as metric in GBD studies can be converted into more easily understood monetary terms. The resulting estimate of the annual cost of global hunger of up to 1.9 trillion international dollars may be better suited to illustrate the magnitude of the remaining problem...


It is pertinent to recall why we are concerned about hunger and malnutrition: because of the negative consequences it has for people’s health and well-being. Food and nutrition insecurity is usually defined in terms of what determines hunger... However, to measure hunger... the outcome of food and nutrition insecurity, i.e. the burden of disease that is caused by hunger, should be used...


One challenge when trying to measure health outcomes of undernutrition is the multitude of adverse health consequences that can be attributed to hunger, in particular to micronutrient deficiencies... Therefore the question is whether health can be measured in a consistent way across such diverse outcomes. To make the burden imposed by different health outcomes comparable... the World Bank introduced the concept of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)...


The WHO used DALYs to quantify the global burden of disease (GBD), for which it reported results at the country level and for a range of health outcomes. Based on these readily available data, DALYs can be used to quantify the global burden of hunger... A more recent GBD study... represents an improvement since it covers more causes and risk factors of poor nutrition... per year more than 160 million DALYs are lost due to hunger, which is more than 6 percent of the total burden of disease...


While... using DALYs to measure hunger is a better approach... one challenge for the use of DALYs is their abstractness: what exactly is a “disability-adjusted life year”? ... One way of illustrating the magnitude of the burden of hunger is to express it in money... While there are obvious problems with the monetization of social costs... it offers a coherent framework that permits conducting the kind of broad analyses and comparisons that are needed to guide policy making...


Using this approach produces an estimate for the global cost of hunger of Int$1.9 trillion per year, or 2.4 percent of world income. One indication that the global cost of hunger falls indeed into the trillion-dollar range is the estimate for the worldwide cost of undernutrition of US$1.4 trillion to US$2.1 trillion that the FAO gives... using a very different approach...


The “cost” of hunger is an opportunity cost, i.e. it provides an estimate for the additional annual national income that society foregoes by not solving undernutrition... One estimate of the costs that would have to be incurred to reach more than 80 percent of the world’s undernourished children with key nutrition interventions suggests this could be as (relatively) little as $10 billion a year, i.e. only one-hundredth of the current cost of hunger...


It is interesting to compare the estimate of the number of hungry people with that of the number of DALYs lost due to hunger over time. Judging by the FAO’s indicator, the achievement of MDG 1 is not very likely. However, if the objective was indeed more generally to “reduce hunger by half”, this has already been achieved – if hunger is measured using DALYs... in 1990 the burden of hunger was 320 million DALYs lost, but by 2010 this burden had already shrunk by half to 160 million DALYs lost...


The discrepancy in the assessment of the development of global hunger if based on food availability versus actual health outcomes might be surprising, but as... discussed above, food availability is but one determinant of (or input into) hunger, whereas DALYs measure the outcome of hunger that results from all inputs combined. In this case – in the presence of other, uncorrelated inputs into hunger that change over time – an indicator that monitors only one input is bound to show a different development than an indicator that measures the final outcome...


Not least in light of the discussion of the post-2015 development agenda... it is important that agreed-upon targets can be operationalized based on indicators that allow precise monitoring of progress… Stakeholders in food and nutrition security need to be aware of the advantages of outcome-based measures like DALYs... those working on GBD studies should pay more attention to undernutrition and to related health risks, and more frequent updates of the GBD or relevant subsets could further increase the usefulness of DALYs...


Using DALYs to quantify the burden of hunger has shown that the international efforts to improve global welfare are bearing fruit and that progress in the fight against undernutrition has been more rapid than is generally believed. Still, the problem of global hunger remains unresolved, and its magnitude becomes especially apparent when approximated in more familiar monetary terms. With more detailed, country-level DALYs data becoming available, further research can determine in which countries and for which nutrition-related health outcomes the biggest reductions in the burden of hunger have been achieved – and it can help explain why...


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Sweet potato Vitamin A research wins World Food Prize - BBC (2016) 

Sweet potato Vitamin A research wins World Food Prize - BBC (2016)  | Food Policy |

Four scientists have been awarded the 2016 World Food Prize for enriching sweet potatoes, which resulted in health benefits for millions of people… "the single most [successful] example of biofortification", resulting in Vitamin A-boosted crops. Three of the 2016 laureates… have been recognised for their work developing the vitamin-enriched orange-fleshed sweet potato. The fourth winner, Dr Howard Bouis who founded HarvestPlus at the International Food Policy Research Institute, has been honoured for his work over 25 years to ensure biofortification was developed into an international plant breeding strategy across more than 40 countries. 

Announcing this year's winners, USAID administrator Gayle Smith said: "These four extraordinary World Food Prize Laureates have proven that science matters, and that when matched with dedication, it can change people's lives." Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is considered to be one of the most harmful forms of malnutrition in the developing world. It can cause blindness, limits growth, weakens immunity and increases mortality. The condition affects more than 140 million pre-school children in 118 nations, and more than seven million pregnant women. It is said to be the leading cause of child blindness in developing countries… 

Biofortification [is] the process "by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology… Biofortification may therefore present a way to reach populations where supplementation and conventional fortification activities may be difficult to implement"… 

Dr Borlaug, often called the father of the Green Revolution, established the World Food Prize 30 years ago to recognise "exceptionally significant" achievements by individuals. In 1970, Dr Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his contribution to world peace through his work to increase global food supplies… 

Growth in global agricultural productivity, for the third year in a row, was not advancing at the rate required to meet future demand for food… unless this emerging trend was reversed, the "world may not be able to sustainably provide the food, feed, fibre and biofuels needed for a booming global population"… Productive techniques and technology were "essential for producers of all scales as climate change and extreme weather events threaten the sustainability of agricultural value chains"…

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Impact and cost-effectiveness of women's training in home gardening and nutrition in Bangladesh - Schreinemachers &al (2016) - J Dev Effective

Impact and cost-effectiveness of women's training in home gardening and nutrition in Bangladesh - Schreinemachers &al (2016) - J Dev Effective | Food Policy |

This study quantifies the impact and cost-effectiveness of training poor rural women in Bangladesh in home gardening and nutrition… The intervention significantly increased vegetable production (+16.5 g/person/day), vegetable consumption and the micronutrient supply from the garden. Using the disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) approach, we show that the intervention can be considered cost-effective in abating iron, vitamin A and zinc deficiencies. Home garden interventions can therefore make an effective contribution to addressing micronutrient undernutrition. 

There is growing interest in the potential of home-based food production to address micronutrient undernutrition in developing countries… The impact pathway of home gardening interventions is straightforward. Poor women are trained how to grow crops rich in micronutrients on small plots of land near their homestead, and how to do this year-round. Concurrently they are trained about the importance of nutrition, which raises their demand for these crops, and cooking methods that best preserve the micronutrient content. After the training, women are assumed to establish a home garden (or improve an existing one) and address production constraints such as water supplies, labour time, pest control and basic input supplies. This leads to increased production of micronutrient-rich food, while households are assumed to consume most of it rather than sell it. 

However compelling the basic concept, the evidence base for the link between home garden interventions and nutrition outcomes is small. A recent review of evidence for home gardening… mentioned that no cost-effectiveness study has been performed on home garden interventions, and concluded that there is a need for better-quality impact studies because most previous studies were observational rather than experimental or quasi-experimental… The present study… tests the hypotheses whether training poor rural women in home gardening and nutrition increases home-based vegetable production, micronutrient yields and the quantity and diversity of vegetable consumption one year after the training. The study is also the first to carry out a cost-effectiveness analysis of a home garden intervention. 

Fruit and vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet. Globally, low fruit and vegetable intake ranks among the top 10 risk factors contributing to mortality. In Bangladesh… the average per capita daily consumption of 212 g is below the level of 400 g as recommended… Between 2012 and 2015, over 10,000 women received the training. Several criteria were defined for women to be eligible for receiving project support: First, the household must own some land but not more than one acre (0.4 ha). This… admittedly excludes poor landless households; for them, a different garden design using pots and crop species suitable for growing in pots is more suitable. Second, households with at least one child below the age of five were given priority. Third, the women must have some experience in growing vegetables; however, they should not be recipients of any similar intervention in the past. Last, participation was voluntary and women should therefore have an interest in the project… 

Among the many things taught during the training, women learned about the importance of nutrition in preventing diseases, the body functions of various nutrients, nutritional value of commonly consumed vegetables, and the available nutrients from different colours of vegetables. It also taught women how to preserve the nutritional content of vegetables during cooking. For the technical part of the training, women were taught about site selection, site and land preparation, garden layout and design, raised planting bed preparation, proper fencing, seasonal vegetable selection, sowing practices, fertiliser application, irrigation and drainage, weeding, and insect and disease management without pesticides… and taught the importance of using quality seeds. After the training, participants were encouraged to share the knowledge they acquired with their neighbours… The training officers visited the home gardens on an almost-weekly basis for the first six months of the training. For the second six months after the training, the visiting frequency was reduced to a monthly basis… 

The study used a quasi-experimental design comparing pre- and post-intervention data for a group of intervention households that received training and support in home gardening, and a group of control households that did not receive training or support. Selection bias was minimised by applying the same eligibility criteria… There is potential bias from spillover effects of the intervention on the control group because the trained women had been encouraged to share their new knowledge with their neighbours. If such spillover did occur, then the evaluation is likely to underestimate the true impact of the intervention. This source of bias was minimised by selecting control and intervention households from different villages. The short period between baseline and follow-up data further reduced the likelihood of spillover effects. 

This study used a range of outcome indicators to quantify the effect of home vegetable gardens on households’ vegetable production and consumption. Vegetable production was expressed in kilograms per household member per year… The survey recorded how much of the production was consumed within the household, shared with others or sold. Nutrient yields were calculated from the vegetable production data using food composition tables… This study specifically looked into the supply of plant proteins, calcium, iron, folate, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin C… Quantity of vegetables consumed, expressed in grams per capita per day, was calculated using a 24-hour recall method… The source of the vegetables (home garden, commercial field, bought, received for free and others) was also recorded. In addition, we calculated the number of different vegetables consumed as an indicator of dietary diversity. Intermediary outcome variables… include the time allocation of women and men to working in the home garden, the changes made to the home garden after the training, inputs used in the home garden and challenges encountered in doing home gardening. 

Costs… were calculated from project financial reports, project work plans and information obtained from key persons involved in the project. The costs of implementation were straightforward to calculate because subcontracts had been agreed upon with implementing agencies. Yet, costs such as office rent and project management were more difficult to quantify, as the home garden training was only one component of the larger project. The project managers estimated that they had spent 5 percent of their time on the home garden component and that the field staff had spent 15 percent on it… We added organisational overhead and the cost of the impact evaluation to the total costs. The opportunity cost of women’s time was approximated as the product of days spent on the training and home gardening and half the average minimum daily wage in rural Bangladesh. This low wage rate was used because within the local cultural context it is considered inappropriate for women to do off-farm work… The opportunity cost of the land was assumed zero because most home gardens were established on compound land and because there was no significant expansion of the garden area as a result of the intervention… The total cost was divided by the number of trained households to estimate the cost per beneficiary household. 

The disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) method is widely used to measure health outcomes… It provides an annual measure of the disease burden… DALYs lost are the sum of years of life lost and years lived with disability. On the other hand, DALYs saved reflect the reduced burden of disease as a result of a public health intervention and are a measure of the benefit of training women in home gardening and nutrition. The method has been widely applied to estimate the cost-effectiveness of agricultural interventions in terms of health outcomes. 

To estimate DALYs saved, the micronutrient intake gap before and after the intervention was first calculated. The intake gap before the intervention is the ratio of current micronutrient intake and recommended nutrient intake (RNI)… We then added the micronutrient supply from the home garden to the current micronutrient intake to estimate the intake gap after the intervention. From these two ratios, the percentage reduction in micronutrient intake gap was calculated… From this, we then calculated the DALYs saved. Some previous studies have argued that the link between nutrient intake and health outcomes might not be proportional… Our calculations might therefore underestimate the true impact of the intervention where the current nutrient intake gap is large. The cost per DALY saved provides an indicator of cost-effectiveness that can be compared to other public health interventions. The WHO suggested dividing the cost per DALY saved by the national per capita income level of a country, which is a proxy for the value of one year lost due to illness or mortality. A health intervention can be considered ‘very cost-effective’ if this ratio is less than unity and ‘cost-effective’ if it is below 3… 

Results… It is notable that we did not find an increase in the average area dedicated to the home garden for the intervention group… any increases in vegetable production can be attributed to an intensification of the existing home garden area… Women who received the training made a large number of changes to how they managed their home garden… the introduction of new crops, the use of raised planting beds, use of quality seed, crop rotations, relay cropping and new fencing… The most frequent problems included difficulty in controlling pests and diseases, plants destroyed by livestock and expensive seed… The proportion of women who felt that there was not enough water was higher in the intervention group… water only became a constraint when they tried year-round vegetable production and also because more productive crops require more water… The average trained women spent 7 min per day on the home garden, which was an average increase of 2.5 min… Men spent on average 3-4 min/day on the home garden, mostly on preparing the land… 

Households that had received the intervention harvested an average quantity of 109 kg of vegetables and fruit from their home garden… a 31 kg increase… This… translates into a daily per capita quantity of vegetables of 16.5 g. Increased production of nutrient-dense leafy vegetables accounted for half the increase in vegetable supply, while the quantity of cucurbits and eggplants significantly decreased… The training thus shifted garden production towards nutrient-dense vegetables. This shift towards leafy vegetables, which are lighter and more nutritious, makes the observed increase in weight more noteworthy. The trained households consumed most of the home garden produce within the own household (75 percent)… This does not mean that there are no monetary gains from the improved home garden, as income saved from not having to buy vegetables could be important, but we did not quantify this in our study… 

The increased garden production is more remarkable when expressed in quantities of nutrients. Although the quantity of vegetables increased by only 33 percent, the supply of iron, folate, zinc and protein increased by 80-95 percent, the supply of vitamin A and calcium increased by about 135 percent, and the supply of vitamin C increased by 175 percent… The intervention households consumed 254 g of vegetables and fruit per capita per day as compared to 235 g for the control group. This suggests an increase of 19 g of vegetables and fruit per capita per day, or an 8 percent increase during the rabi season…. The intervention households consumed a greater number of different vegetables. 

The cost for the project to establish a home garden steadily declined from US$178 in 2011-12 to US$47 in 2013-14 as the scale of the project increased. The opportunity cost of women’s time spent on the training and gardening was US$14. There was no significant increase in input use, but this might have been masked by the free provision of seed in the first year of the project. We therefore added this amount (US$3) to subsequent years. Assuming that the impact of the training lasts for 5 years, after which women would need retraining, the annualised cost per home garden is US$23, of which 42 percent is for women’s time spent. The assumed opportunity cost of women’s time thus appears as critical to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the intervention. Based on a per capita daily recommended level of 200 g of vegetables, the improved home gardens supplied 34 percent of these needs, of which 8 percent could be attributed to the home garden intervention… We note that spoilage is minimal because women would only harvest from the home garden what they would actually use… The intervention has the potential to close the micronutrient intake gap for calcium, iron and folate by 4-6 percent and vitamin A by 100 percent… the mean intake of zinc for the Bangladesh population is already above the RNI… However… Ahmed et al. (2012) and Meenakshi et al. (2010) reported substantial zinc deficiencies for Bangladesh and IHME (2015), estimated the cost of zinc deficiency to be 225 thousand DALYs… we assumed a zinc intake gap of 36 percent. 

For the micronutrients covered in this study, data on DALYs were available for iron, vitamin A and zinc deficiencies from IHME (2015) and the analysis therefore focused on these three micronutrients. The results should be interpreted as a conservative estimate of the total contribution of home gardens to micronutrient deficiencies, as the intervention would be more cost-effective if other micronutrients were also considered. Based on the estimated reduction in the nutrient intake gaps… we assumed a reduction in DALYs by the same percentages. This would mean a total of 122,610 DALYs saved if the intervention could reach all households affected by iron, vitamin A and zinc deficiencies… 

Although not all households are affected, we conservatively assumed that 50 percent of households in Bangladesh (17 million households) are affected by either iron, vitamin A or zinc deficiencies. Reaching these many households with a home garden intervention, assuming no economies of scale, would cost US$375 million per year. This implies a cost of US$3,059 per DALY saved. Dividing the cost per DALY saved by the national per capita income level in Bangladesh, which was US$1,097 in 2014, suggests cost-effectiveness of 2.8 for iron, vitamin A and zinc deficiencies combined. The WHO suggests that a health intervention can be considered ‘cost-effective’ if the ratio is below 3 and ‘very cost effective’ if it is below unity. By this standard, training of women in home gardening and nutrition can be considered a cost-effective strategy to address the health effects caused by iron, vitamin A and zinc deficiencies; however, given that other micronutrients are supplied by the home garden as well, this represents a conservative estimate and the true cost-effectiveness is likely to be higher. Critical variables in the cost-effectiveness analysis are the assumed opportunity cost of women’s time… and the assumed nutrient losses between vegetable harvest and intake… The results are sensitive to these two variables… However… valuing women’s gardening time at 50 percent of the daily minimum wage rate and 0 percent food waste and nutrient losses are the most realistic assumptions. 

Our results show that training women in home gardening and nutrition increased the household vegetable supply… The study is one of the very few studies that separated the production effect of a home garden intervention between rabi and kharif seasons. Unfortunately, this showed that there was no impact of the intervention on garden vegetable supplies during the hot and dry (rabi) season when vegetables are relatively scarce. This is likely because of water shortages, as one-third of the trained women mentioned this to be a limitation. It is noted that the 2013 rabi season was relatively hot and dry, which is likely to have affected the results. It is therefore critical to address production constraints during the dry and hot season. It also shows the importance of capturing season variation in evaluation designs. 

This study was the first to perform a cost-effectiveness analysis of a home garden intervention aimed at addressing micronutrient deficiencies. The clear advantage of a home garden intervention is its ability to concurrently address multiple micronutrient deficiencies, yet data limitations forced us to focus on iron, vitamin A and zinc, which are nevertheless the main micronutrient deficiencies affecting Bangladesh… A critical assumption was the opportunity cost of women’s time spent on training and gardening. If women’s time is valued at the minimum daily wage rate, then the intervention is not cost-effective with regard to the three micronutrient deficiencies considered – although it might still be cost-effective considering the full range of benefits. The question is whether the 7 min per day that women on average spent in the garden came at the cost of leisure time or productive time otherwise spent on childcare and other household chores… 

Women gained self-esteem by being recognised for their agricultural skills in the community… noneconomic motives might be more important and… valuing women’s gardening time at the daily wage rate underestimates the true cost-effectiveness of the intervention… Interventions promoting home gardens and nutrition are cost-effective, even if only three key micronutrients are considered. Yet… it is important to keep in mind that home gardens directly influence some of the causes of micronutrient deficiencies (that is, low food consumption and low diversity of food consumption), while micronutrient supplementation, fortification and biofortification address symptoms rather than causes… The benefits of home garden interventions go beyond micronutrients as they contribute to dietary diversification (an important welfare indicator in its own right), women empowerment, and other social and economic functions. Furthermore, because the effectiveness of home garden interventions tends to vary throughout the year… and because they do not close the micronutrient intake gap… home garden interventions are best seen as complementary to other interventions… 

Training women of eligible households in rural Bangladesh in home gardening and nutrition significantly increased the per capita supply of vegetables by 16.5 g/day, most of which was consumed within the own household. It also led to an increased diversity of vegetables in the households’ diets. By WHO standards, the intervention is a cost-effective approach to address micronutrient deficiencies among poor rural households in Bangladesh, thereby contributing to food and nutrition security. Home gardens can be a useful food-based strategy to promote better balanced diets among poor rural households that have access to a small plot of land and are willing to engage in gardening. Home gardens can complement other interventions such as micronutrient supplementation, fortification and biofortification.

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For an in-depth discussion of the article and a detailed comparison of the cost-effectiveness of this home gardening programme with other micronutrient interventions – that shows that home gardens are a very expensive way of improving people's nutrition, health and overall welfare – please see my subsequent post here on at or the original post at Tumblr at

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Advancements in Biofortification Increase Availability, Longevity of Beta-Carotene in Sorghum Grain - PRWeb (2016) 

Biofortified crops have improved the human condition wherever implemented and are also an economical and sustainable means of providing higher levels of micronutrients in diets of at-risk populations… Researchers have demonstrated that increasing vitamin E and beta-carotene production in sorghum markedly improves the availability and longevity of beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. This could be especially meaningful for Sub-Saharan Africa, where the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency has remained high and unchanged since the early 1990’s. 

“For children up to age three who rely on sorghum as a staple, we should be able to provide 100 percent of vitamin A Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for up to a month after harvest, via beta-carotene. We also should be able to provide more than 20 percent EAR needs for extended periods of time after sorghum grain harvest… And we’re not finished – we believe even higher levels of vitamin A throughout the year are possible.” 

Without biofortification, sorghum grain – a mainstay in many diets – is seriously deficient in vitamin A, iron and zinc. Vitamin A deficiency causes a number of symptoms, including blindness and an increase in mortality from measles and diarrhea. Long-term deficiencies can cause permanent mental and physical impairment. 

The… research team identified oxidation as the main factor in rapid breakdown of beta-carotene in sorghum grain. They were able to slow degradation by inserting a gene from barley, which serves to increase vitamin E. A powerful anti-oxidant, vitamin E also helps more than double the half-life of beta-carotene in grain stored under normal conditions. In this case, it improved an unprotected half-life of 2-3 weeks to 8-10 weeks… 

Biofortified crops have improved the human condition wherever implemented and are also an economical and sustainable means of providing higher levels of micronutrients in diets of at-risk populations. Biofortified crops already making a difference in Africa and Asia include beans, sweet potato, millet, and maize, with increases in iron, zinc, and vitamin A as the target micronutrients. While dietary diversity remains the long term goal, biofortified crops can play an important role until improved diets are more common. 

“We’re pleased that we’ve made continual progress and have been able to develop a more nutritious sorghum grain… We look forward to the day when the most at-risk members of African society can benefit from this research”… 

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided the initial funding for the biofortified sorghum project, with help from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. More recent efforts have relied upon funding and in-kind donations from the Pioneer Foundation and DuPont Pioneer. African leadership for the effort has come from African Harvest… who worked closely with the Nigerian Institute of Agricultural Research and the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Institute…

Underlying article:

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Climate risk and state-contingent technology adoption: shocks, drought tolerance and preferences - Holden & Quiggin (2016) - ERAE

Climate risk represents an increasing threat to poor and vulnerable farmers in drought-prone areas of Africa. This study assesses the maize adoption responses of food insecure farmers in Malawi, where drought-tolerant (DT) maize was recently introduced. 

A field experiment, eliciting relative risk aversion, loss aversion and subjective probability weighting parameters of farmers, is combined with a detailed farm household survey... 

More risk-averse households were more likely to have adopted DT maize, less likely to have adopted other improved maize varieties and less likely to have dis-adopted traditional local maize (LM). Exposure to past drought shocks stimulated adoption of DT maize and dis-adoption of LM... 

The results have significant policy implications for Malawi and other drought-prone areas throughout the world, as technological change will be an essential part of adaptation to climate change. 

We see that risk preferences and loss aversion have stimulated the adoption of DT maize and that recent exposure to shocks has further stimulated adaptation through adoption and dis-adoption of LM.

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Why Is China Investing in Africa? Evidence from the Firm Level - Chen &al (2016) - World Bank Econ Rev

China’s increased trade with, and investment in, Africa have boosted the continent’s economic growth but have also generated considerable controversy. 

The aggregate data on China’s overseas direct investment (ODI) in African countries reveal that China’s share of the stock of foreign investment is small, though growing rapidly. China’s attraction to resource-rich countries is no different from Western investment. 

China’s overall ODI is uncorrelated with a measure of rule of law, whereas Western investment favors the better governance environments. As a result, Chinese investment in strong and weak governance environments is about the same, but its share of foreign investment is higher in the weak governance states. 

Micro data... on registered Chinese firms investing in Africa between 1998 and 2012 provide a different perspective... Contrary to common perceptions, there are few projects in natural resource sectors... Chinese ODI, both horizontal and vertical, is profit-driven, like investment from other countries...

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Climate change could destroy wild relatives of cereals by 2070 - New Sci (2016) 

Climate change could destroy wild relatives of cereals by 2070 - New Sci (2016)  | Food Policy |

Global warming could rapidly threaten grasses, including wild relatives of staple foods such as wheat and rice that provide half of all the calories consumed by humans. A new study looking ahead to 2070 found that climate change was occurring thousands of times faster than the ability of wild grasses to adapt. This doesn’t directly threaten food crops, but wild relatives provide a source of genetic diversity… 

The new research looked at the ability of 236 grass species to adapt to new climatic niches – the local environments on which they depend for survival. Faced with rapid climate change, species wedded to a particular niche can survive if they move to another region… or evolve to fit in with their altered surroundings… The predicted rate of climate change was typically 5,000 times faster than the estimated speed at which grasses could adapt… 

Moving to more favourable geographical locations is not an option for a lot of grass species because of limits to their seed dispersal and obstacles such as mountains or human settlements. “We show that past rates of climatic niche change in grasses are much slower than rates of future projected climate change, suggesting that extinctions might occur in many species and/or local populations… This has several troubling implications, for both global biodiversity and human welfare.”

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The Best News You Don’t Know - NYT (2016) 

The Best News You Don’t Know - NYT (2016)  | Food Policy |

The world is a mess, with billions of people locked in inescapable cycles of war, famine and poverty, with more children than ever perishing from hunger, disease and violence. That’s about the only thing Americans agree on… Fortunately, the one point Americans agree on is dead wrong… 

All the evidence suggests that we are at an inflection point for the ages. The number of people living in extreme poverty has tumbled by half in two decades, and the number of small children dying has dropped by a similar proportion – that’s six million lives a year saved by vaccines, breast-feeding promotion, pneumonia medicine and diarrhea treatments! 

Historians may conclude that the most important thing going on in the world in the early 21st century was a stunning decline in human suffering… As recently as 1981… 44 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty… Now the share is believed to be less than 10 percent and falling… For the entire history of the human species until the 1960s, a majority of adults were illiterate. Now 85 percent of adults worldwide are literate and the share is rising… Internationally, inequality is on the decline because of gains by the poor in places like China and India. 

The U.N. aims to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, and experts believe it is possible to get quite close. In short, on our watch, we have a decent chance of virtually wiping out ills that have plagued humanity for thousands of generations, from illiteracy to the most devastating kind of hand-to-mouth poverty. Yet the public thinks the opposite, that poverty is getting worse… But it’s… important to acknowledge the backdrop of global progress. Otherwise, the public may perceive poverty as hopeless and see no point in carrying on the fight – at just the point when we’re making the most rapid gains ever recorded… 

Cynics scoff that if more children’s lives are saved, they will just grow up to have more babies and cause new famines and cycles of poverty. Not so! In fact, when parents are assured that their children will survive, they choose to have fewer of them. As girls are educated and contraception becomes available, birthrates tumble – just as they did in the West… 

So in a moment we can return to urgent needs worldwide, from war to climate change to refugees. But first, let’s pause for a nanosecond of silence to acknowledge the greatest gains in human well-being in the history of our species – not to inspire complacency, but rather to spur our efforts to accelerate what may be the most important trend in the world today.

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Edible crickets can be reared on weeds and cassava plant tops - SLU (2016) 

Edible crickets can be reared on weeds and cassava plant tops - SLU (2016)  | Food Policy |

To become a sustainable alternative to meat, reared crickets must be fed feeds other than the chicken feed that is most commonly used today... there are weeds and agricultural by-products that actually work as single ingredients in feeds for crickets. The study was conducted in Cambodia, where many children suffer from malnutrition and where the need for cheap protein is large. 

"Since there are both climate and environmental benefits of eating insects, we believe that this habit will become more common, also in Western countries. What our study shows is that it is possible to rear crickets on feeds that don't compete with other kinds of food production"... Reared insects are increasingly seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, even by the United Nations... 

In the Western world there is a cultural reluctance to eating insects, but also a cautious curiosity, and there is an increasing interest among scientists. In other parts of the world, such as Asia, there is a tradition to eat insects, and some species are regarded as delicacies. Many insects also seem to have a high nutritional value. So far, people mainly catch wild insects, but rearing them is emerging as a way to meet the growing demand.

Crickets are prized as food and they also seem to be quite easy to rear. Today crickets are usually reared on chicken feed, and this production has limited environmental benefits compared to chicken production, since crickets and chickens grow equally well on this feed. Also, this feed is too expensive for poor people, and its nutritional value is so high that people could just as well eat it themselves.

To be a climate and environmentally smart food, crickets have to be reared on feeds that have little value in other kinds of agricultural production, such as residues or weeds, and they must be cheap enough for poor people. Scientists know that many cricket species can feed on "a little of everything" but very few attempts have been made to rear crickets on residues, and none using weeds...  

There are weeds and residues that perform as well as chicken feed for the Cambodian field cricket... A number of Cambodian weeds and various residues from agricultural and other food production were tested in the study. Today these commodities are available for free or nearly free, which means that even very poor people would be able to rear crickets, at least to cover their own family's needs. The best ingredients were cassava tops and the weed Cleome rutidosperma, both of which could be used as a single ingredient cricket feed.

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"Crickets are usually reared on chicken feed... this feed is too expensive for poor people, and its nutritional value is so high that people could just as well eat it themselves." 
>> Exactly the problem of meat, even of poultry: In general it's a very resource-intensive, inefficient, and therefore unsustainable way of feeding an ever growing global population.  

"There are weeds and residues that perform as well as chicken feed for the Cambodian field cricket... Today these commodities are available for free or nearly free, which means that even very poor people would be able to rear crickets, at least to cover their own family's needs." 
>> Obviously no economists were involved in the study -- one cannot assume any market to remain stable when offer or demand of a commodity changes: Today nobody has any use for these weeds and residues, i.e. there is no demand and therefore they are free (and because they are not marketable, they are not really "commodities" in the first place). However, if tomorrow only a fraction of Cambodia's 15m people want to raise crickets on weeds and residues, there will be a huge demand for these commodities (i.e. they will become real commodities that satisfy a need), a market will emerge (where people who have weeds and residues but who do not like crickets or have no time to raise them, will offer their weeds and residues for sale, and where millions of other Cambodians will want to buy them), prices will rise, and the poor may no longer be able to afford this new cricket feed, either. (On the other hand, a rising offer of "protein" on the market will drive prices down, which will also benefit the poor.) 
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Climate change means land use will need to change to keep up with global food demand - U Birmingham (2016) 

Climate change means land use will need to change to keep up with global food demand - U Birmingham (2016)  | Food Policy |

Without significant improvements in technology, global crop yields are likely to fall in the areas currently used for production of the world’s three major cereal crops, forcing production to move to new areas. With a worldwide population projected to top nine billion in the next 30 years, the amount of food produced globally will need to double… Much of the land currently used to grow wheat, maize and rice is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This could lead to a major drop in productivity of these areas by 2050, along with a corresponding increase in potential productivity of many previously-unused areas, pointing to a major shift in the map of global food production. 

The study… uses a new approach… to predict how the potential productivity of cropland is likely to change over the next 50-100 years as a result of climate change. The results show that: Nearly half of all maize produced in the world (43%), and a third of all wheat and rice (33% and 37% respectively), is grown in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Croplands in tropical areas, including Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the Eastern US, are likely to experience the most drastic reductions in their potential to grow these crops. Croplands in temperate areas, including western and central Russia and central Canada, are likely to experience an increase in yield potential, leading to many new opportunities for agriculture… 

Efforts to increase food production usually focus on closing the yield gap, i.e. minimising the difference between what could potentially be grown on a given area of land and what is actually harvested. Highly-developed countries already have a very small yield gap, so the negative effects of climate change on potential yield are likely to be felt more acutely in these areas. ‘Our model shows that on many areas of land currently used to grow crops, the potential to improve yields is greatly decreased as a result of the effects of climate change… But it raises an interesting opportunity for some countries in temperate areas, where the suitability of climate to grow these major crops is likely to increase over the same time period.’ 

The political, social and cultural effects of these major changes to the distribution of global cropland would be profound, as currently productive regions become net importers and vice versa. ‘Of course, climate is just one factor when looking at the future of global agricultural practices… Local factors such as soil quality and water availability also have a very important effect on crop yields in real terms. But production of the world’s three major cereal crops needs to keep up with demand, and if we can’t do that by making our existing land more efficient, then the only other option is to increase the amount of land that we use.’

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Plating up solutions - Garnett (2016) - Science 

Plating up solutions - Garnett (2016) - Science  | Food Policy |

The food system… is responsible for ∼25% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It also drives deforestation and biodiversity loss, land degradation, water overuse, and pollution, and creates and perpetuates inequalities within and across societies. And it does not even feed us effectively: While obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases escalate, hunger and micronutrient deficiencies persist. As the global population grows, becomes wealthier, and demands more resource-intensive foods, these problems are likely to worsen… 

So far, policy-makers have mostly adopted a production-based approach to these interconnected challenges, focusing on technologies and strategies that increase food output in ways that do less environmental damage. Cleaner production techniques are clearly essential. But by itself, this “more food with less impact” approach cannot deliver on the deep cuts in emissions needed… Nor does it address the systemic imbalances that cause food insecurity, rising obesity and noncommunicable diseases, and high levels of food waste. 

To address these imbalances, policy-makers must also consider the driver of production: human eating patterns. Scientists are now starting to explore these drivers… Almost all researchers who study sustainable healthy diets highlight the high environmental impacts of meat and dairy consumption and the complex associations between high meat intakes and poor health outcomes… The typical Western eating patterns that are growing in prevalence across the world have high environmental impacts and damage health. 

These “lose-lose” diets are the point of departure when considering the merits of alternatives. Diets containing fewer or no animal products generally emit fewer GHGs than the high-meat Western norm: On average, the lower the animal component, the lower the GHG emissions…Conclusions on water impacts are less clear because fruits and vegetables can require high levels of irrigation. Reducing overall energy intakes in line with dietary recommendations also reduces impacts overall. 

“Win-win” diets that are less land-, water-, and GHG-intensive than the Western default and that broadly adhere to nutritional guidelines can be identified… reduced meat intakes need to be compensated for with increases in the quantity and diversity of whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables… Healthy diets may have high environmental impacts if rich in dairy, lean meats, and fresh produce grown under protected conditions or transported by air… 

Work on sustainable diets does not generally account for differences in production systems. These vary hugely, such as between industrial feedlot beef and sub-Saharan pastoral cattle herds, and have very different impacts. Food processing affects both environmental and nutritional impacts of a given food… Future innovations in production and processing methods could alter the environment-health relationship… Studies largely focus on only a few environmental aspects… Impacts on biodiversity are a notable gap… 

This reliance on just one or a few indicators of sustainability matters because the metrics used influence the conclusions drawn. For example, poultry has much lower GHG emissions than beef. However, poultry production relies heavily on feeding cereals that could potentially be consumed directly by humans. This is also true of ruminants… In certain limited contexts, and provided that they are well managed, grazing animals can also help maintain biodiversity in grasslands… 

A full definition of sustainability would include broader societal concerns, encompassing livelihoods, affordability, animal welfare, and non-nutritional health issues. There will inevitably be trade-offs. For example, livestock intensification may lower GHG emissions per kilogram of meat or milk output but raise animal welfare concerns, increase antibiotics use, or cause local job losses. Additionally, many social and economic objectives are difficult to agree upon and measure… 

It is in this arena of values that questions about effecting change become most contested. We know little about how to move eating patterns in healthier, let alone more sustainable, directions, except that education and awareness-raising alone achieve little. This ignorance reflects the chronic privileging of the natural and physical over the social sciences and policy reluctance to interfere with the market, risk votes, or displease powerful corporations. 

But if… we cannot address our environmental problems without altering diets, we need a research program that encompasses more structural approaches to exploring what mix of regulatory and economic measures, industry actions, and education programs could be effective and acceptable, and at which scales… Policy-makers must also be willing to test promising approaches where evidence is scarce; experimentation builds evidence… 

Interventions will also affect population subgroups differently. For example, a meat tax could potentially incentivize a switch to fish, with environmental problems swapped rather than eliminated; to refined, nutritionally poor carbohydrates; to cheaper processed, less healthy meat, resulting in no environmental gain and worse health; or to meat with lower animal-welfare credentials… 

Values frame and inform which issues or options are considered or ignored, which sustainability dimensions prioritized, which interventions considered researchable and fundable, and whose voice counts. These questions go beyond the natural sciences. But since food is entangled in almost every aspect of our lives, understanding how sustainable food systems and diets look and how to achieve them will require deeper collaborations across disciplines and beyond academic boundaries.

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Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers - Zhang &al (2016) - Nature

Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers - Zhang &al (2016) - Nature | Food Policy |

Sustainably feeding the world’s growing population is a challenge and closing yield gaps (that is, differences between farmers’ yields and what are attainable for a given region) is a vital strategy to address this challenge. The magnitude of yield gaps is particularly large in developing countries where smallholder farming dominates the agricultural landscape. Many factors and constraints interact to limit yields, and progress in problem-solving to bring about changes at the ground level is rare. 

Here we present an innovative approach for enabling smallholders to achieve yield and economic gains sustainably via the Science and Technology Backyard (STB) platform. STB involves agricultural scientists living in villages among farmers, advancing participatory innovation and technology transfer, and garnering public and private support. We identified multifaceted yield-limiting factors involving agronomic, infrastructural, and socio-economic conditions. When these limitations and farmers’ concerns were addressed, the farmers adopted recommended management practices, thereby improving production outcomes. In one region in China, the five-year average yield increased from 68% of the attainable level to 97% among 71 leading farmers, and from 63% to 80% countywide (93,074 households); this was accompanied by resource and economic benefits.

A collaboration worth its weight in grain 

A defining challenge of our time is to feed an increasingly populated, urban and affluent planet while minimizing the loss of diverse and crucial ecosystems. The focus of attempts to increase global food production has therefore turned to closing yield gaps… Zhang et al. tackle this challenge at the ground level, working closely with small-scale farmers in rural China to increase crop yields in practical and locally appropriate ways. Their work raises the question: what exactly does it mean to talk about yield gaps on a local scale? 

On a global scale, yield gaps are viewed as a function of a relatively small set of factors. One study estimated that climate, fertilizer application and water-irrigation techniques explain 60-80% of the variation in yield for major crops, and that closing gaps to meet attainable yields would increase global production of key crops by 45-70%. At the local scale, on-farm productivity depends on these factors, as well as on management practices such as sowing date and planting density, and on socio-economic aspects such as labour availability and market access. On the ground, the conversation about yield gaps leaves the conceptual realm of productivity in optimal conditions, and turns to the adoption of agricultural technology and the design of interventions to remove constraints on productivity. This is the scale at which Zhang and colleagues offer their contribution: the results of a project designed to improve actual yields on actual farms… 

The project team… identified management practices associated with lower yields on farms, including choice of crop variety, planting density and timing, and management of soil tillage and water irrigation infrastructure. Project staff worked with farmers to redesign cultivation recommendations to meet local needs, and to implement techniques designed to surmount yield constraints… Combined maize and wheat yields in the fields of lead farmers – skilled farmers who worked closely with the researchers – increased from 68% to 97% of attainable levels... When viewed through the lens of closing yield gaps, this is a remarkable achievement. But questions arise about whether that is the most useful way to frame this work, and how this local-scale technology-transfer project is linked to global food-production goals. Is this story really about yield gaps, and should it be? … Focusing on yield can expose farmers to increased risk of crop failure or food insecurity. Farming is a risky business, and farmers might need to minimize variability across their entire operation, or they could prioritize income from off-farm employment as a primary strategy to achieve household food security… Yield-gap assessment must be accompanied by analyses of markets, policies and other institutional factors. 

This project clearly provides a well-received and effective set of tools for improving farm management… However, some of the other outcomes… might be more valuable than crop yields as indicators of the project’s success. For example, compared with farmers in control villages, those involved with the programme… displayed substantially better agricultural knowledge and achieved higher nutrient and water-use efficiencies, indicating increased access to appropriate information and technology. The creation of pathways for communication between farmers, farming educators, and researchers is crucial to the success of small farms. Successful participatory interventions can boost yields, but they also allow farmers to make more-informed decisions about trade-offs, risks and livelihood strategies… If the goal of closing yield gaps can be used to improve the transfer of information and technology to farmers… that might be enough.

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A growing problem, child malnutrition costs Philippines $7billion in a year - Reuters (2016) 

A growing problem, child malnutrition costs Philippines $7billion in a year - Reuters (2016)  | Food Policy |

Child malnutrition cost the Philippines $7 billion or nearly 3 percent of its GDP in one year in terms of education spending and lost productivity, while hunger-related stunting is on the rise among children… A report by Save the Children found that the combined losses, calculated with data from 2013, are more than triple the cost of damage inflicted by 15 natural disasters that hit the Southeast Asian country last year. "Stunting costs are a drag on the economy and impacts all of us, not just the child and the family. It keeps the Filipino economy poorer by 3 percent. If you add that up over time – it's an anchor to progress"… 

Stunting is defined as low height-for-age and is measured by comparing the height of a child against the international benchmark for a child of the same age. Caused by a poor diet in a child's first 1,000 days of life, stunting has severe, irreversible consequences on physical health and cognitive functioning… After 25 years of steady improvement, the prevalence of stunting among Filipino children under five increased to 33 percent in 2015 from 30 percent in 2013. 

"That's a 10 percent increase in a two-year period, so that is devastating. We're going in the wrong direction,… Even though you have an economy that's humming along at 6 to 7 percent a year, you have an increase in poverty from 24 to 25 percent of all families, and you haven't addressed the issue of access to food"… Of the estimated 49,000 students who had to repeat a grade level in school, 15 percent repeated as a result of under-five stunting. It estimated that $27 million was required to cover the costs of grade repetitions for these stunted children… 

Meanwhile, urban poverty and hunger are worsening… Save the Children… this year started providing emergency food therapy for "starving, skeletal children" in urban areas. Save the Children called for more investment in nutrition programs for pregnant and lactating mothers and babies in their first 1,000 days… also urged the government to address issues such as water and sanitation, agriculture, education and investment in overall productivity. "Malnutrition is seen as disease burden to be handled by the department of health. We know that doesn't work"…

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Child hunger costs Chad almost $1 billion a year: African Union, U.N. - Reuters (2016) 

Child hunger costs Chad almost $1 billion a year: African Union, U.N. - Reuters (2016)  | Food Policy |

Childhood hunger is costing Chad more than… $980 million a year in health and education costs and lower productivity in adult life… This is equivalent to 9.5 percent of Chad's gross domestic product (GDP)… 

 More than 56 percent of Chad's adults – some 3.4 million people – suffered from stunting as children, and as a result are unable to achieve their full potential… Stunting, which leads to children being short for their age, is a sign of chronic undernourishment and occurs when children lack the calories and proteins – and sometimes vitamins and minerals – they need to grow. 

"The study provides us with compelling evidence of the consequences of child undernutrition as well as the justification to increase investment in nutrition"… It also provides evidence of the "potential economic returns if we are to take aggressive measures toward eliminating stunting"… More than 183,000 children in Chad died from undernutrition in the last five years… 

Studies completed to date have concluded that African economies are losing the equivalent of between 1.9 and 16 percent of GDP due to child undernutrition.

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How to address micronutrient deficiencies: Vegetables yes, home gardens perhaps not - Stein (2016)

How to address micronutrient deficiencies: Vegetables yes, home gardens perhaps not - Stein (2016) | Food Policy |

The recent paper on the “Impact and cost-effectiveness of women’s training in home gardening and nutrition in Bangladesh” by Schreinemachers and colleagues [1] is a very important study, as it provides crucial and comparable information on the cost-effectiveness of home gardening interventions – which so far has been largely missing.

In particular activists who think that any “technological” intervention to address micronutrient malnutrition is bad (such as supplementation, fortification and modern crop breeding), routinely submit that “low-tech solutions like kitchen gardening” would be a better way forward.

Of course a balanced diet – with sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables – is the ultimate solution to malnutrition, but such diets are, unfortunately, not accessible or affordable for millions of people [2]. Both the MDGs and now the SDGs focus on poverty reduction and the alleviation of hunger, but with hundreds of millions of people still stuck in misery, these goals will not be achieved overnight.

In this context supplementation (in particular iron pills for pregnant women, vitamin A capsules for pre-school children, and zinc supplements to manage diarrhoea) and fortification (especially universal salt iodisation) are implemented to address the most severe deficiencies. While not without shortcomings, these interventions are generally considered to be cost-effective public health interventions.

More recently also “biofortification” has been proposed as a micronutrient intervention – meaning micronutrients are not added to the food at the processing stage (as is done with fortification), but using both conventional and modern breeding approaches to develop staple crops with higher levels of key micronutrients. (A related approach at the cultivation stage consists of applying mineral fertiliser to crops to increase their micronutrient content, which I would like to call “nutrilisation”.) Also these interventions have been shown to be potentially cost-effective (breeding more so than fertilisation) [3].

What was missing so far was a rigorous, peer-reviewed study that shed light on the cost-effectiveness of home gardening. (Studies in the grey literature suggested that effective home gardening might only be worthwhile if household labour was ignored [4].)

Now Schreinemachers and colleagues have shown for home gardens in Bangladesh that such an intervention can be cost-effective – but at least in this case only if the most lenient benchmark is used: Saving one healthy life year (DALY) by improving nutrition through home gardens is estimated to cost over US$ 3,000 – about three times as much as the average national per capita income for Bangladesh.

To put this into context, the WHO’s cut-off for very cost-effective interventions is the simple average national per capita income (i.e. for Bangladesh about US$ 1,100), and the World Bank standard for cost-effectiveness – about US$ 275 per DALY saved – is even an order of magnitude lower. (And the cost-effectiveness of other home garden programmes might be lower still, if one of the most promising programmes was assessed first.)

Moreover, no intervention exists in a vacuum, but it has to be compared to alternative and complementary programmes: An intervention might be cost-effective against an abstract benchmark, but as long as financial and other resources are limited, most likely there are more potential interventions that could be funded than there are funds. This means it is necessary to rank interventions to decide which ones to implement first.

While policy-makers have discretion as to how to weight options based on different qualitative and quantitative considerations, one intuitive and objective criterion for a first filtering of options is cost-effectiveness – that is, how much bang for the buck can an intervention deliver? This is the more important as funding is scarce and has to be spent wisely [5].

In the case of DALYs-based studies, the relevant question is how much money has to be spent to save one healthy life year. As it turns out, there are many studies that report the cost-effectiveness of nutrition interventions in terms of US$/DALY saved. Without any claim for completeness (but also without any purposeful omission or biased selection), I compiled a Table with the results of these studies, which cover supplementation, fortification, biofortification and nutrilisation (see bottom).

In the Table I also included commonly used benchmarks to assess the cost-effectiveness of public health interventions, namely the above-mentioned World Bank cut-off for cost-effective public health interventions from its 1993 World Development Report [6], which then was 150 US$/DALY but in current terms is about 275 US$/DALY. I also added the GDP per-capita thresholds suggested in 2001 by the WHO’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health [7] that also Schreinemachers and colleagues used. However, to illustrate the implications of using a relative threshold, I included the 2015 values for the country with the lowest GDP per capita (Burundi, with 276 US$/capita) and the values of the country with the highest GDP per capita (Luxembourg, with 101,450 US$/capita) [8].  

Moreover, given that the interest here is on the cost-effectiveness of home gardening, I also added the most optimistic scenario from Schreinemachers and colleagues. (In this scenario they assume that there are no opportunity costs for the labour – mostly by women – that the households invest in the gardens. Basically this means that those women’s time has no value, even if the authors acknowledge that the women’s time could otherwise be spent on childcare and other household chores. This is particularly noteworthy, given that on the benefit side the authors use triple national per capita income to benchmark the beneficiaries’ time in the form of healthy life years that are saved.)

Schreinemachers and colleagues also mention other benefits of home gardens, such as biodiversity conservation and gender equality, and they point out that the “results should be interpreted as a conservative estimate of the total contribution of home gardens to micronutrient deficiencies, as the intervention would be more cost-effective if other micronutrients were also considered” than just iron, vitamin A and zinc. Yet, they concede that these “are nevertheless the main micronutrient deficiencies affecting Bangladesh”. To do this argument justice (even if in a quick and dirty way), I also added estimates for the cost-effectiveness of home gardens if their impact was double or even triple as big as the impact calculated by Schreinemachers and colleagues.

To visualise the information from the Table, I inserted the Figure above (the numbers on the x-axis correspond to the numbers of the rows of the Table). The green bars represent the various estimates for the cost-effectiveness of home gardening, while the yellow bar represents the World Bank’s cut-off for cost-effective interventions, and the red bars represent the various per-capita benchmarks. (The blue bars show all the other micronutrient interventions, be it supplementation, fortification, biofortification, or nutrilisation.) This shows that home gardening is a comparatively expensive intervention – the more so given that the values on the y-axis are shown on a non-linear scale as the discrepancy in values between the right side (very high) and the left side (very low) is too high to be represented on a normal scale.

The only interventions that are less cost-effective than home gardening is nutrilisation with granular zinc fertiliser in Africa (which nevertheless does much better than home gardening in optimistic scenarios), as well as biofortification of beans with zinc in Nicaragua (a country with a very small target population, and an exception from the dozens of other case studies that show superior cost-effectiveness of biofortification), and iron fortification and supplementation in Europe (where iron deficiency is a relatively smaller problem, while intervention costs are much higher).

Judging by this ranking, and even using the most optimistic assumptions, home gardening turns out to be a very costly micronutrient intervention. What this comparison therefore shows is that home gardens are probably not a very sensible investment to tackle undernutrition: In this study, the total costs of the home gardening project amounted to about half a million US dollars. If spent on home gardening (with its cost-effectiveness of 3,059 US$/DALY), such a budget can save 150 healthy life years. However, if this money was spent on a (middle-ranking) intervention that costs 50 US$/DALY, the same budget could save almost 10,000 healthy life years!

Expressed slightly differently, assuming an average life expectancy of 70 years, for that budget home gardens save little more than the equivalent of 2 lives, while any mid-range micronutrient intervention – be it supplementation, fortification or biofortification – could save the equivalent of 130 lives. To me it seems a no-brainer what the money should be spent on (namely on the interventions to the left of the Figure, which can go below 10 US$/DALY) and what it should not be spent on (namely all those to the right of the Figure, which can exceed 1,000 US$/DALY, no matter what the particular intervention is).

Does this mean promoting the production and consumption of more fruit and vegetables is wrong? No, certainly not. Although this goes beyond what can be deducted from the studies compared here, it is probably obvious that (in the longer term) the solution to malnutrition is for people to be able to eat an adequate and balanced diet – including fruit and vegetables. But I think there could be useful lessons to be learnt from this comparison for how and where the promotion of vegetable production and consumption could make more sense.

As the Table below clearly shows, what drives costs down and improves cost-effectiveness is economies of scale: Biofortification, which – after a largely one-time expense on breeding and dissemination – can generate benefits over time and space, is more cost-effective than fortification or supplementation (which require recurrent expenses for the fortificants and supplements as well as the related processes). And biofortification that targets large groups of beneficiaries (India, China, Nigeria, Brazil) is more cost-effective than biofortification that targets small countries (Nicaragua, Honduras).

In a similar vein (going for scale), promoting vegetable production and consumption by trying to train millions of households individually, may not be the best way forward. Instead, it might be more promising to invest more money in the development of new and better vegetable varieties (with higher yields, a longer shelf-life, and better resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses) that – compared to targeting relatively more rural households – respond to the needs of relatively fewer farmers and incentivise more of them to cultivate more vegetables. At the same time investing in better supply and retail chains could help reduce losses due to spoilage.

Overall this would increase the availability and reduce the cost of vegetables, making them more easily accessible and affordable for poor households. (And meanwhile the more cost-effective micronutrient interventions discussed above should be implemented to address the main vitamin and mineral deficiencies.) 

Still, to the extent that some households do have home gardens and that their use could be improved, perhaps a different approach than direct (i.e. expensive) training could be imagined. Given the spread of mobile phones and the rise of mobile internet, increasingly also in developing countries (according to Wikipedia currently there are 85 mobile connections per 100 citizens in Bangladesh, and “mobile penetration levels are relatively high, even in rural areas” [9]), perhaps home gardening extension work could be done in future through such channels.

While this would have a lower impact than hands-on training, it could exploit economies of scale and still be much cheaper, thus increasing overall cost-effectiveness. This way home gardens could still complement to some extent other the micronutrient interventions that produce the biggest impact, while most of the improvement in vegetable consumption would come from the greater and cheaper supply on the market.

Returning to the study by Schreinemachers and colleagues itself, it is a well-done, transparent and rigorous analysis; the authors pay attention to details, discuss weaknesses, make conservative assumptions, and present different scenarios. I would therefore argue that the results are reliable and trustworthy. The following points may nevertheless deserve to be highlighted here, too:  

* Schreinemachers and colleagues only evaluated home gardening that is done by households that own (a minimum of) land, i.e. the analysed programme excludes poor and landless households – even though these are presumably the household most in need of help. (Exclusion of those most in need is also a problem for supplementation, as the public health system might not reach the poorest of the poor, and for fortification, as the very poor eat very little processed food. On the other hand, by focusing on staple crops that are consumed especially by the poor, biofortification is self-targeting these population groups that are excluded by other interventions.)  

* Similarly, home gardens are a pro-cyclical, rather than resilient interventions: As the authors acknowledge, “the effectiveness of home garden interventions tends to vary throughout the year” – and likewise they will probably be less effective during crises such as droughts, i.e. during times when food security is deteriorating already. While the same is also true e.g. for supplementation, which may be interrupted when funding is cut, in times of crises people will still eat staple crops, i.e. biofortifying these crops reduces the vulnerability of poor and undernourished people.

* The authors also explain that “participation was voluntary and women should therefore have an interest in the project”. This introduces a self-selection bias, as more committed participants probably also produce better outcomes. Therefore one cannot expect to get the same results when scaling up such programmes, as there will be less and less women who are interested in home gardening. (Or more and more resources have to be invested into driving behaviour change, making home gardening even less cost-effective.)

* Also noteworthy is that the intervention “taught the importance of using quality seeds”. Using quality seeds is certainly important, but using them (vs growing heirloom varieties) is probably not what the activists who propose “low-tech solutions” have in mind, and yet “lack of quality seed” was one of the significant problems reported by the participants, i.e. with traditional approaches the impact of home gardening would be much lower. Similarly, given that one of the most frequent problems encountered by participants was the “difficulty in controlling pests”, this might cause them in the long run to either give up more intensive home gardening, or to turn to pesticides (which again are probably no “low-tech” solutions).

* As noted above, the authors made a number of conservative assumptions, such as assuming a linear relationship between nutrient intakes and health outcomes (when the impact of nutrition interventions is likely bigger the bigger the nutrient intake gap), assuming that the impact of the training lasts for only five years, or disregarding economies of scale (which they argue exist for the particular project they analysed, even if it is doubtful that scaling up extension projects to cover also more difficult to reach or unwilling participants would really get any cheaper). Therefore, their results may be a bit too pessimistic. However, as explained above, in the Table and the Figure I already included estimates for the cost-effectiveness of home gardening with an impact thrice as high as the best estimate reported by Schreinemachers and colleagues – and even this very bold estimate did not change the ranking of home gardening much.

* The only point where the authors are not conservative is in benchmarking the cost-effectiveness of the home gardening programme: They do not compare it to other (much more cost-effective) micronutrient interventions, they do not use the World Bank’s (much lower) cost-effectiveness threshold, and from the WHO recommendations they use the most lenient benchmark of triple national per capita income (meaning even by the weak standards of the WHO the programme is only cost-effective, but not “very” cost-effective). To address this weakness in their analysis, I therefore did such a more comprehensive comparison of the cost-effectiveness of the home gardening programme in my discussion here.

* Finally, on the cost side of their cost-effectiveness calculation the authors value the time women spend on the home gardens only at “half the average minimum daily wage in rural Bangladesh”, whereas on the benefit side they use triple national per capita income to benchmark the beneficiaries’ time (i.e. the healthy life years that are saved). Therefore, one could argue that the authors implicitly weight the benefits of home gardening six times more heavily than costs. (And it is safe to assume that the minimum rural daily wage is much lower than the average national per capita income, i.e. the discrepancy is even bigger.)

All in all, the discussion here showed that home gardening might be an appealing idea, but other interventions can enhance people’s nutrition, health and overall welfare at much lower costs. This means that for any given budget, implementing other interventions can improve the lives of a much greater number of people. This clearly is a utilitarian argument, but given the magnitudes involved here – as approximated above, for every 2 healthy lives that can be saved through the analysed home gardening programme, many other micronutrient interventions could save 150 healthy lives or even more – I think it is a very strong one.  

Disclaimer:  I know the first author and, in a way, encouraged him to do a cost-effectiveness analysis of home gardening after having read another of his papers [10]. He does not agree with the conclusions of my discussion here, though.

Table: Cost-effectiveness of micronutrient interventions

# : Intervention = US$/DALY (2015 US$)
1 : Supplementation, VA, children = 1.8
2 : Biofortification, VA, sweet potato, Uganda = 2.5
3 : Biofortification, iron, rice, India = 2.6
4 : Biofortification, iron, beans, NE Brazil = 2.7
5 : Biofortification, zinc, rice, India = 2.8
6 : Biofortification (GM), iron, rice, China = 3.0
7 : Biofortification, iron, rice & wheat, India = 3.6
8 : Biofortification (GM), zinc, rice, China = 4.0
9 : Biofortification (GM), VA & iron, cassava, Nigeria = 4.4
10 : Biofortification, zinc, rice, India = 4.4
11 : Biofortification, zinc, rice & wheat, India = 5.0
12 : Biofortification (GM), VA, cassava, Nigeria = 5.4
13 : Biofortification, zinc, rice, Bangladesh = 5.7
14 : Biofortification, iron, rice & beans, NE Brazil = 5.9
15 : Biofortification, iron, wheat, India = 5.9
16 : Biofortification, iron, rice, NE Brazil = 6.7
17 : Biofortification, iron, wheat, India = 6.9
18 : Fortification, iron = 7.0
19 : Fortification, iron = 7.3
20 : Fortification, VA = 7.3
21 : Biofortification, zinc, wheat, India  = 7.5
22 : Biofortification (GM), multiple, rice, China = 7.9
23 : Biofortification, iron, wheat, Pakistan = 10
24 : Fortification, iodine, salt = 12
25 : Biofortification, iron, rice, India = 13
26 : Biofortification, zinc, wheat, Pakistan = 13
27 : Biofortification (GM), VA, rice, India = 14
28 : Biofortification, iron, rice, Bangladesh = 14
29 : Fortification, iodine, salt or water = 15
30 : Supplementation, VA = 15
31 : Biofortification (GM), VA, rice, China = 15
32 : Fortification, zinc, SearD * = 19
33 : Supplementation, iron, pregnant women = 20
34 : Biofortification, VA, sweet potato, Uganda = 22
35 : Iron supplementation, pregnants = 24
36 : Biofortification, VA, sweet potato, Uganda = 24
37 : Biofortification, zinc, wheat, India = 26
38 : Fortification, zinc & VA, AfrE * = 26
39 : Biofortification (GM), VA, rice, Bangladesh = 31
40 : Fortification, iron, AfrD * = 32
41 : Supplementation, iodine, women = 34
42 : Biofortification, zinc, multiple, Honduras = 35
43 : Biofortification, zinc, rice, Philippines  = 42
44 : Supplementation, VA, India = 44
45 : Fortification, VA, Africa = 45
46 : Fortification, zinc & VA, SearD * = 48
47 : Biofortification (GM), VA, cooking banana, Uganda = 52
48 : Fortification, iron, SearD * = 52
49 : Biofortification, VA, cassava, Haiti = 53
50 : Biofortification (GM), folate, rice, China = 56
51 : Supplementation, VA, Africa = 57
52 : Biofortification (GM), VA & iron, cooking banana, Uganda = 57
53 : Biofortification (GM), VA & iron, cassava, Kenya = 61
54 : Biofortification (GM), VA & iron, cooking & sweet banana, Uganda = 63
55 : Supplementation, iron, AfrD * = 66
56 : Supplementation, iodine, all = 67
57 : Biofortification, zinc, beans, Honduras = 69
58 : Biofortification, zinc, multiple, Nicaragua = 73
59 : Biofortification, VA, maize, Kenya = 82
60 : Biofortification (GM), VA, rice, Philippines = 83
61 : Biofortification, VA, cassava, DR Congo = 83
62 : Biofortification (GM), VA, cassava, Kenya = 84
63 : Biofortification, VA, cassava, Nigeria = 91
64 : Biofortification, iron, beans, NE Brazil = 97
65 : Biofortification, zinc, rice, Honduras = 109
66 : Fortification, VA = 114
67 : Supplementation, iron, SearD * = 127
68 : Biofortification (GM), VA, mustard, India  = 160
69 : Biofortification, iron, rice, Philippines = 181
70 : Biofortification, zinc, beans, Nicaragua = 185
71 : Fertilisation (foliar), zinc, wheat & maize, Africa * = 217
72 : Biofortification, VA, maize, Ethiopia = 188
73 : Biofortification, zinc, rice, Nicaragua = 223
74 : Fortification, iron, AmrB * = 239
75 : World Bank cut-off for cost-effective public health interventions = 272
76 : Simple GDP/capita for Burundi (WHO benchmark) = 276
77 : Biofortification, iron, beans, Honduras = 294
78 : Biofortification, iron, beans, Nicaragua = 316
79 : Fertilisation (foliar), zinc, wheat, China = 318
80 : Biofortification, zinc, maize, Nicaragua = 358
81 : Fertilisation, zinc, wheat, Pakistan * = 456
82 : Supplementation, VA = 460
83 : Biofortification, zinc, maize, Honduras = 481
84 : Biofortification, VA, cassava, NE Brazil = 711
85 : Biofortification, VA, maize, Mexico = 775
86 : Supplementation, iron, AmrB * = 796
87 : Triple GDP/capita for Burundi (WHO benchmark) = 828
88 : Home gardening, Bangladesh (triple impact assumed)  = 1,021
89 : Biofortification, zinc, beans, Honduras = 1,038
90 : Biofortification, zinc, beans, NE Brazil = 1,288
91 : Home gardening, Bangladesh (double impact assumed)  = 1,531
92 : Home gardening, Bangladesh (most optimistic scenario) = 1,757
93 : Home gardening, Bangladesh = 3,063
94 : Fertilisation (granular), zinc, wheat & maize, Africa * = 3,600
95 : Biofortification, zinc, beans, Nicaragua = 4,088
96 : Fortification, iron, EurA * = 9,048
97 : Supplementation, iron, EurA * = 20,431
98 : Simple GDP/capita for Luxembourg (WHO benchmark) = 101,450
99 : Triple GDP/capita for Luxembourg (WHO benchmark) = 304,350

Notes: I took simple averages where a range of – optimistic and pessimistic – estimates was given, I transformed incremental  estimates into absolute ones, and I inflated all estimates to 2015 US dollars. (This perhaps a bit quick and dirty, but I’m interested in orders of magnitude, not decimal points…)
° These estimates are more than 20 years old, and even if the results were inflated to 2015 US dollars, they probably have to be taken with a pinch of salt.
* These estimates are in international dollars, not US dollars.
^ According to the WHO’s (relative) benchmark, it’s very cost-effective to spend US$ 100,000 to save a healthy life year in Luxembourg, but it’s not cost-effective at all to spend US$ 830 to save a healthy life year in Burundi. I myself also used the WHO benchmark in the past to give a rough idea of the cost-effectiveness of an intervention. And this benchmark does reflect economic realities on the ground: A public health official in Burundi will probably never dream of implementing an intervention at scale that would cost 50,000 US$/DALY, while her Luxembourgish counterpart would certainly be giving such an option serious thought. But it’s nevertheless only a hypothetical indicator with obvious shortcomings, which is why I included the thought-provoking contrast of cost-effectiveness in Burundi vs Luxembourg.



Alexander J. Stein's insight:
For the underlying article also see the previous post:

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We do not like the thought of eating animals - UiO (2016) 

We do not like the thought of eating animals - UiO (2016)  | Food Policy |

We like eating meat more than the thought of eating animals. Scientists conclude that we choose not to really think about what we eat, because if we do we lose the appetite. When we eat beef, chicken wings, hot dogs or spaghetti bolognese, we do it in denial. Already by referring to what we eat as “beef” instead of “cow”, we have created a distance between our food and an animal with abilities to think and feel. “The presentation of meat by the industry influences our willingness to eat it. Our appetite is affected both by what we call the dish we eat and how the meat is presented to us”… 

Chicken was presented at different processing stages: a whole chicken, drumsticks, and chopped chicken fillets. The scientists measured participants’ associations to the animal, and how much empathy they felt with the animal. In the second study, participants saw pictures of a roasted pork – one beheaded the other not. The scientists examined their associations to the animal, and to which extent they felt empathy and disgust. They also asked participants whether they wanted to eat the meat or would rather choose a vegetarian alternative. 

“Highly processed meat makes it easier to distance oneself from the idea that it comes from an animal. Participants also felt less empathy with the animal. The same mechanism occurred with the beheaded pork roast. People thought less about it being an animal, they felt less empathy and disgust, and they were less willing to consider a vegetarian alternative.” In a third study participants saw two advertisements for lamb chops, one with a picture of a living lamb, another without. The picture of the lamb made people less willing to eat the lamb chops. They also felt more empathy with the animal. 

Philosophers and animal rights activists have long claimed that we avoid thinking about the animal we eat, and that this reduces the feeling of unease. This mechanism is described by the “disassociation hypothesis”. Celebrities have spoken up for the animals as well. Founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, ate only self-slaughtered meat for one year, claiming, “Many people forget that a living being has to die for you to eat meat”. Vegetarian Paul Mc Cartney said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian”… 

We do have a tendency to distance ourselves from the thought of what we actually eat; this reduces discomfort and increases the willingness to eat meat. In the three first studies, the scientists examined processing stages and presentation. In the next two studies, they investigated the use of words and phrases. They found that replacing “pork” and “beef” in the menu with “pig” and “cow” made people less willing to eat meat. The choice of words also affected feelings of empathy and disgust. Lastly, researchers investigated the effect of using the word “harvest”. Traditionally the word has referred to plants, but in the U.S., it is now increasingly replacing words like “slaughtered” or “killed”. The scientists found a clear effect: When the word “harvest” was used, people felt less empathy with the animal. 

In total, more than 1000 people participated in the studies, and most of them were meat eaters. For some of them, eating meat was difficult, for others less so. Everyone disassociated meat from animals in their daily lives, but those that spent the most effort on disassociating were more sensitive when the presentations and descriptions of meat changed. “We did not test whether these sensitive persons ate less meat than others in general. However, we all have a sensitivity in us, but this sensitivity is rarely activated because of the presentation of meat”… 

In many western cultures people consume more meat than what authorities recommend. High consumption of red or processed meat can increase the risk of several diseases. Reducing meat consumption is also more resource friendly. “The science results support a line of philosophers and animal rights activists who have said that the way meat is presented and talked about in our culture, makes us consume more of it”… The results… might help authorities limit people’s meat consumption. 

“For instance, authorities can influence people’s diets by presenting pictures of the animals in meat advertisements or contexts where meat is consumed. However, the will to do this is probably limited, since there are strong financial interests involved”…

Underlying article:

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Not so sure about the naming of meat – e.g. in German beef is called "cow meat" and pork is called "pig meat" – but usually there are indeed no images of the actual animals on the packed meat or in the meat section (or at most small, stylised, monochrome outlines of the animals to help illiterates avoid certain meats), and it's all clean stainless steel and aseptic white styrofoam... 
Kevin Bass-'s comment, October 16, 8:21 AM
If I remember correctly, the animal name is from the English, and the food name is from the French. This difference in names represented class differences. After the Norman conquest of England, French was the ruling class language. And since the French were eating the animals and the English raising them, the food term was French (from which we derive our English food terms today), and the animal term was originally English. Such linguistic features represent social or practical or economic structures, not emotional or ethical ones. Anyway I am not sure if this account is true, but I have heard it on several occasions.
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Across The Globe, Our Diets Are Making Us Sicker - NPR (2016) 

Across The Globe, Our Diets Are Making Us Sicker - NPR (2016)  | Food Policy |

Diet and nutrition are now the biggest risk factors for people's health across the globe, even in poorer countries… "If you look at all the diet-related risk factors for health, they outweigh the burden of all of the other risk factors combined"… The other risk factors include unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use. 

The report… offers some good news, too. We have fewer hungry people in the world now than a couple of decades ago – only one in 10 people, as opposed to about one in five in 1990… This has been possible because of targeted projects to tackle hunger, as well as overall reductions in poverty, better education, improved health care and sanitation. 

As poorer countries have developed over the past couple of decades, many aspects of life in those countries have gotten better… "More kids go to school, more clean water and sanitation"… But diet doesn't necessarily get better with higher incomes. Yes, people eat more healthy foods when they earn more money – for example, milk, fruits and seafood. But their consumption of unhealthy foods – processed foods and sugary drinks – increases much more with rising incomes…  

In fact, the sale of processed foods is growing at the fastest rate in developing countries… "Income is sort of a double-edged sword. It allows us to buy healthy stuff and also unhealthy stuff"… As a result, the planet is seeing a rapid rise in rates of overweight and obesity… What follows is a concomitant rise in the rates of diet-related health problems… 

The report blames these trends on changing food environments in most countries. Healthy foods are becoming increasingly expensive the world over, while unhealthy food is becoming cheaper and easier to buy. "The price of fruits and vegetables is going up and up… The price of processed foods is going down and down." In other words, it is becoming easier and more economical to buy unhealthy foods. 

On the other hand, people moving to cities are increasingly turning to street food or processed food, because they don't have time and they want to save money. "If you're a person holding down two or three jobs and you don't take a lot of time, it makes sense"… And that's where food industries are stepping in and catering to the three things that consumers look for – "taste, price and convenience"… 

Countries should invest more money into research on and development of crops like pulses, vegetables and fruits… "Vegetable consumption has been flat for the past 20 years… Pulse consumption has been flat." That's because the prices of vegetables and pulses have gone up in recent years. More funds and subsidies on these crops would help lower prices, and encourage people to eat more of these healthy foods…

Underlying report:

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Big Numbers about Small Children: Estimating the Economic Benefits of Addressing Undernutrition - Alderman &al (2016) - Wold Bank Res Obs

Different approaches have been used to estimate the economic benefits of reducing undernutrition and to estimate the costs of investing in such programs on a global scale. While many of these studies are ultimately based on evidence from well-designed efficacy trials, all require a number of assumptions to project the impact of such trials to larger populations and to translate the value of the expected improvement in nutritional status into economic terms. This paper provides a short critique of some approaches to estimating the benefits of investments in child nutrition and then presents an alternative set of estimates based on different core data. These new estimates reinforce the basic conclusions of the existing literature: the economic value of reducing undernutrition in undernourished populations is likely to be substantial… 

The economic gains from investment in nutrition are based on the increased productivity that is assumed to accompany projected reductions in stunting. These are a major component of the economic value of improved nutrition but are, nevertheless, a subset; reductions in anemia are also considered benefits of improved nutrition and would likely have additional productivity benefits that are largely independent of increased height. Moreover, and more important, any reductions in stunting – as well as in wasting – will also result in reduced mortality. However… we think it is very challenging… to assign a meaningful dollar value to a reduction in mortality. We can, nevertheless, give an order of magnitude estimate on the number of deaths averted… of 560,000 child deaths globally in that year alone.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
As the authors concede, looking only at reductions in stunting when trying to estimate the benefits of reducing undernutrition leaves out other health (and ultimately also economic) benefits of improved nutrition. This is one of the reasons I suggested using the metric of “Disability-Adjusted Life Years” (DALYs) to measure undernutrition more comprehensively, showing that the global cost of hunger could be as high as 2 trillion dollars [1]. And while the authors are right that it is challenging to assign a meaningful dollar value to a reduction in mortality, this can done be nevertheless following different approaches in the literature [2]. 

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The interaction between social protection and agriculture: A review of evidence - Tirivayia &al (2016) - Global Food Sec

Both agricultural interventions and social protection interventions are needed for combatting hunger and poverty among poor smallholder farmers. Yet, coordination between these two sectors is generally limited and... little attention has been paid to the interaction between them and how this potentially improves rural livelihoods. 

Our review analyses the empirical evidence on how social protection impacts agricultural production and how agricultural interventions reduce risks and vulnerability at the household and local economy levels. 

Most studies show that social protection can increase agricultural production while agricultural interventions can lower vulnerability... Existing evidence largely provides an empirical rationale for building synergies between social protection and smallholder agriculture.

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Farm production, market access and dietary diversity in Malawi - Koppmair &al (2014) 

The association between farm production diversity and dietary diversity in rural smallholder households was recently analysed... The role of other factors that may influence dietary diversity, such as market access and agricultural technology, is also analysed. A survey of smallholder farm households was carried out in Malawi... 

Farm production diversity is positively associated with dietary diversity. However... access to markets for buying food and selling farm produce and use of chemical fertilizers are shown to be more important for dietary diversity than diverse farm production... 

Further increasing production diversity may not be the most effective strategy to improve diets in smallholder farm households. Improving access to markets, productivity-enhancing inputs and technologies seems to be more promising.

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Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment - NYT (2016) 

Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment - NYT (2016)  | Food Policy |
There is much to like about small, local farms and their influence on what we eat. But if we are to sustainably deal with problems presented by population growth and climate change, we need to look to the farmers who grow a majority of the country’s food and fiber. Large farmers… are responsible for 80 percent of the food sales in the United States, though they make up fewer than 8 percent of all farms… Their technology has helped make them far gentler on the environment than at any time in history. And a new wave of innovation makes them more sustainable still. 

A vast majority of the farms are family-owned. Very few, about 3 percent, are run by nonfamily corporations. Large farm owners (about 159,000) number fewer than the residents of a medium-size city… Their wares… fill the shelves at your local grocery store. 

There are legitimate fears about soil erosion, manure lagoons, animal welfare and nitrogen runoff at large farms – but it’s not just environmental groups that worry. Farmers are also concerned about fertilizer use and soil runoff. That’s one reason they’re turning to high-tech solutions like precision agriculture. Using location-specific information… new tools… can put fertilizer only on those areas of the field that need it… GPS signals drive many of today’s tractors, and new planters are allowing farmers to distribute seed varieties to diverse spots of a field to produce more food from each unit of land… 

Before “factory farming” became a pejorative, agricultural scholars of the mid-20th century were calling for farmers to do just that – become more factorylike and businesslike… It is precisely this large size that is often criticized today in the belief that large farms put profit ahead of soil and animal health. But increased size has advantages, especially better opportunities to invest in new technologies and to benefit from economies of scale. Buying a $400,000 combine that gives farmers detailed information on… different parts of the field would never pay on just five acres of land… 

These technologies reduce the use of water and fertilizer and harm to the environment. Modern seed varieties, some of which were brought about by biotechnology, have allowed farmers to convert to low- and no-till cropping systems, and can encourage the adoption of nitrogen-fixing cover crops… Herbicide-resistant crops let farmers control weeds without plowing… they enable no-till farming methods, which help prevent soil erosion. These practices are one reason soil erosion has declined more than 40 percent since the 1980s. 

Improvements in agricultural technologies and production practices have significantly lowered the use of energy and water, and greenhouse-gas emissions of food production per unit of output over time… Farmers increased production through innovation… In 1900, about 40 percent of the United States population was on the farm… Today… only about 1 percent… A result is that romantic, pastoral images of farming from yesteryear are far from representing reality. 

Big problems face farmers and consumers. Climate change, food waste, growing world population, drought and water quality are just a few. There are no easy answers, but innovation, entrepreneurship and technology have important roles to play. So, too, do the real-life large farmers who grow the bulk of our food. 

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The Implications of Agricultural Trade and Market Developments for Food Security - Tallard &al (2016) - OECD

Reducing hunger and undernourishment is a global priority and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have the ambitious target of eradicating hunger entirely by 2030… This paper provides projections on the availability of calories at the national level, for the number of persons undernourished, and for the proportion of undernourishment (PoU) that are consistent with the market projections… It also considers the impact on undernourishment of four alternative scenarios: faster income growth relative to the baseline in developing countries; stronger growth in agricultural productivity; a combination of a faster income growth with a stronger productivity growth; and finally a more equitable access to available food supplies. 

Under the baseline, the global PoU is projected to fall from 11% to 8% over ten years, with Latin America as a whole dipping under the 5% threshold at which the FAO considers hunger to be effectively eradicated. The PoU falls from 12% to 8% in Asia and the Pacific and from 23% to 19% in Sub-Saharan Africa… Higher income growth or more productive agriculture removes more people from the ranks of the undernourished, but in most cases, more equitable access to food leads to the biggest reductions. The analysis confirms that it is not lack of available food that is the fundamental problem, but rather effective access to that food. Trade plays an increasing role in ensuring national food availability for many countries… 

The biggest impacts on undernourishment come through a scenario which improved access to available calories through a more equal distribution of incomes… across national populations. Already, the world produces 50% more calories than needed to meet everyone’s minimum calorie requirement. A 10% reduction in the coefficient of variation in 2024 lowers the overall PoU by 2.1 percentage points… A combination of income growth, agricultural productivity gains, and reduced income inequality will keep most Asian countries on track to achieve the SDG of eliminating hunger. However, the PoU for Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole remains stubbornly high under all scenarios, and by 2024 the region will account for more than one third of the global total of undernourished. 

For the poorest African countries, much deeper transformations will be needed that raise the incomes of the poorest households and with it their access to food… Trade will play an important role in moving supplies from surplus to deficit countries. In most countries, the majority of additional consumption will be sourced from domestic markets. Overall there is a modest increase in the share of consumption imported for crop products, but larger increases are observed in some countries, including Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India, Mozambique and Viet Nam. The importance of trade to national food availability will be reinforced if overall income growth is the dominant source of increased calorie availability, and reduced if the main driver is domestic agricultural productivity growth.

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From global to local, food insecurity is associated with contemporary armed conflicts - Koren & Bagozzi (2016) - Food Sec 

From global to local, food insecurity is associated with contemporary armed conflicts - Koren & Bagozzi (2016) - Food Sec  | Food Policy |

Scientists and practitioners… understood food security in terms of dietary energy availability and nutrient deficiencies, rather than in terms of food security’s… implications for social and political violence. The present study offers the first global evaluation of the effects of food insecurity on local conflict dynamics… 

Two agricultural output measures – a geographic area’s extent of cropland and a given agricultural location’s amount of cropland per capita – are used to respectively measure the access to and availability of food in a given region… Food insecurity measures are robustly associated with the occurrence of contemporary armed conflict.

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The U.S. Is Now Eating and Wasting Twice as Much Food as It Did in 1975 - Atlantic (2016) 

The U.S. Is Now Eating and Wasting Twice as Much Food as It Did in 1975 - Atlantic (2016)  | Food Policy |

Americans ate an average of 1,999 calories per day in 1975... we’re now up to 2,481. That increase has come with soaring rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, the fiscal cost of which is inordinate. The greater threat to our health as a population... may be the fact that the total U.S. food supply (the amount... produced and imported) is now 4,000 calories per person per day... This means that close to half of that food supply is going to waste. 

At the same time... the American population increased from 213 million to 319 million. So not only are we individually increasing in mass, but our numbers are soaring. The combined result is that over the past four decades, the amount of food being produced in order to feed the U.S. population (including what goes to waste) has nearly doubled. 

Agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions – not simply by ways of the methane emitted by cattle, but through the deforestation of land necessary to grow the feed for the animals, and the actual process of growing that feed. Barring a radical cultural shift away from such abundance or a re-conception of what we consider to be food, this growth does not seem to be environmentally sustainable in any humane way...

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Hunger games - Economist (2016) 

Hunger games - Economist (2016)  | Food Policy |

In Borno, the state worst-affected by Nigeria’s insurgency, Boko Haram, which is affiliated to Islamic State… camps for the internally displaced are teeming with bloated-bellied babies… The UN estimates that 240,000 children in Borno are suffering from severe acute malnutrition – the deadliest category of it. More than 130 will die each day without assistance. Across the wider north-east of Nigeria, a population equivalent to New Zealand’s is in need of food aid. In Abuja, the country’s sleepy capital, humanitarian co-ordinators compare the crisis to those of South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Unlike them, Nigeria cannot excuse itself as a failed state. It is Africa’s second-biggest economy. Things should never have got this bad. 

That they did is largely because of Boko Haram. The jihadists want to establish a caliphate in Nigeria: until early last year they occupied a territory the size of Belgium. But they are hopeless administrators, skilled only in violence. Rather than wooing neglected villagers, they pillaged food, stole cattle and poisoned water. Instead of using farmers to feed their fighters, they held them under lock and key… Mercifully, the insurgents have been pushed out of most big towns in the north-east over the past 18 months, though they still strike smaller villages, and camp out in the bush. 

Soldiers say that landmines litter farmers’ fields, making it dangerous to grow food. Borno is now entering its third season without a harvest. Where food is available, prices have soared… Those who can find supplies at all are the lucky ones… In other areas, the army is accused of exacerbating the food crisis by closing markets (which could be bomb targets) and blocking the passage of supplies (which could be destined for Boko Haram)… More culpable is the Nigerian government… International partners fume that it did not want Nigeria to be stereotyped as “another African conflict country”, and therefore denied that help was needed… 

Faced with an emergency which it can no longer deny, the government has at last grown more ready to accept help… But the worst is not yet over. The numbers needing aid will grow as new towns open up: there are perhaps 750,000 hungry people in the north-east who currently cannot be reached at all. Some aid agencies think that most insecure parts of Borno are now in full-blown famine, which would suggest that 30% of people there are acutely malnourished…

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China’s honey bee losses are low compared with West - AlphaGalileo (2016) 

Since concern about widespread honey bee colony losses began ten years ago, there have been surveys carried out to assess winter losses in North America and many European countries. So far the picture in China, the largest beekeeping country in the world, has been unclear. Now for the first time, information about winter losses from a large-scale survey carried out from 2010-13 has been published… 

Colony losses were generally low (on average 10.1%), compared to published results from Europe and the USA… Reasons for the lower losses… may be due to a high genetic diversity in their honey bees, regular replacement of queen bees by the beekeepers, and because the average size of beekeeping operation is small, meaning that beekeepers can pay close attention to their hives, in particular to the way they control the parasitic varroa mite… 

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