Health and Agriculture – The “Missing” Links

Agriculture produces the world’s food, fibre and materials for shelter; and in many countries it is also an important source of livelihood among the poor. Also, sometimes agriculture is related directly to poor health including malnutrition, food-borne illnesses, livestock-related diseases and chronic diseases. In turn, health also affects agriculture influencing demand for food, work performance, productivity and income.

People eat to live; to be healthy; and for the simple joy of it. However, bad eating can lead to Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) including diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure, gout and cancer. In fact, the prevalence of NCDs and the risk factors at local level is high and on the rise. NCDs account for 63% of mortality globally. By 2030, the four main NCD-related deaths (cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory illnesses) in Africa will exceed the combined deaths from communicable diseases, nutritional, maternal and neo-natal deaths by 75%.

The cost of care for NCDs dominates health care budgets. In Kenya, NCDs accounts for more than 50% of total hospital admissions and more than 55% of hospital deaths. Finally, mental illnesses such as depression are rising and associated with other NCDs. Kenya’s health care system is not adequately equipped to manage such NCDs burden.

 However, healthy diets can help reduce the risk. Eating nutrient dense foods and balancing energy intake with the necessary physical activity and a healthy weight is essential. The density of nutrients in foods is dependent on production practices.  Although complex to explain, it is clear that diet and foodstuffs production practices impact on consumer’s health. Informed authority has it that foods, rather than nutrients, should form the basis for dietary recommendations on the rule of the thumb: “eat a variety of real foods; mostly plants”.

 However, current systems of agriculture are designed to reduce food diversity. Four main crops – rice, maize, wheat and potatoes – provide two-thirds of global dietary energy intake. Agriculture has increasingly become an engine for generating animal feed, biofuels and industrial ingredients (e.g. sugar-sweetened beverages, ready-to-eat meals and snacks).

New investments in food systems research and production are needed to develop technologies for production of nutrient dense crops at lower cost; in tandem with efforts to develop food value chains to meet the new demand efficiently. These efforts are important for supporting stable incomes for farmers, expanding the production, preservation and distribution of vegetables, pulses and fruits. They are also needed to popularise healthier production environments, food business, healthier eating and healthier lifestyle. Indeed, widespread behavioural changes towards preference for pulses, vegetables and fruits in schools, workplaces, markets and in homes may also be effective without restricting choices. The desired change may be achieved by public policy, strategy and practice at community level.

 We now see that new thinking is needed to afford these multiple benefits. For example, pulse, fruits, vegetables and traditional varieties production and processing businesses can offer new livelihood opportunities for millions. In this way, food systems can be leveraged to affect human health and nutrition: positively influencing food safety, food prices, household incomes and women’s access to productive resources. It can have a positive impact on the environment and many human health and nutrition outcomes related to extreme weather.

 All stakeholders should confront the challenge and find solutions for improved nutrition and health; ending hunger and malnutrition while protecting the ecosystem services.

Health and Agriculture – The “Missing” Links written By Eustace Kiarii appeared in The Kenya Organic Food Festival and Exhibition 2018 Proceedings

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