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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

Organic Shift: Why We Should All Care

Organic food and fibre production safeguard the environment, protects consumers against non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) and creates just wealth and work. It is one of the fastest growing industries in the world estimated at 816 Billion USD in 2016.  During the same year the industry contributed 3 billion KES from exports and 439 Million KES in domestic consumption. East African Regional market is growing at 20% per annum, with the up-market outlets and the tourist industry as major consumers.

The Kenya Organic Agriculture sector is growing fast, currently with 150,479 Ha certified land with the main products for exports being vegetables, salad pre-packs, herbs, spices essential oils, nuts, coffee, tea, and cold pressed oils.

Organic adoption rates are responding to meet the growing domestic and export markets, overcoming scepticism, knowledge and technological challenges. Agricultural research institutions and universities are undertaking research to address most of the challenges that smallholders face and need a platform for sharing discovered solutions or to commercialize products or technologies. In addition, most of farmer innovations are not documented. The NGO/government extension systems have proved inadequate to meet farmers’ needs, lacking in organic competencies and diversity, often causing more confusion than help. This eventually drives farmers to farmer technology transfer which is a slow process, sometimes riddled with unnecessary failure, and in most cases confined only to those areas where the innovation was developed. Consequently leading to useful knowledge being scattered and fragmented among research institution departments and farms.

The need to collate all this data, information and knowledge into a farmer/end user accessible database has never been more urgent. So that useful practices can be validated to meet the different needs of stakeholders. As well, a forum for sharing technologies and knowledge in practice, word, song and dance will foster growth and exchange of ideas, experiences, expectations and views among farmers and stakeholders. Such a forum will also register and share success stories from organic production systems, moving it from kitchen gardening to commercial high dividend enterprises for wealth and food security.