Can distributing hens alone improve nutritional outcomes?

Asset transfer programmes without nutrition-focused health and agricultural policy won't solve the malnutrition crisis.
Updated 04 Jul, 2019 01:16pm

Prime Minister Imran Khan recently launched Ehsas, a programme to alleviate poverty and uplift some of the most disadvantaged sections of society. One of its goals is to tackle malnutrition and stunting and reduce health inequities.

To achieve this goal, a major strategy that the prime minister intends to follow is to distribute chickens and goats to poor households, especially in rural areas. There is some evidence that such a policy can lead to poverty alleviation and better nutritional outcomes for poor households in other parts of the world; therefore, his idea of replicating it here in Pakistan has some merit.

However, it is noteworthy that this strategy is intended for rural and food insecure households, while the problem of stunting is not just concentrated in such households. According to the World Bank, 24 per cent of the children in food secure households of Pakistan suffer from stunting. This number jumps up to 38pc when we consider food insecure households as well.

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These asset transfer programmes in isolation, without a complementary nutrition-focused health and agricultural policy, may not solve the malnutrition crisis faced by Pakistan, where even per-capita income growth has not led to significant gains in malnutrition mitigation.

Although a number of social, environmental and genetic factors are relevant in determining the nutritional well-being of an individual, I want to focus on how agricultural policy can be leveraged to improve nutritional outcomes in Pakistan.

What can be done?

What does having a nutrition-focused agricultural policy entail and how can Pakistan move towards it? Simply put, the government needs to incentivise production of crops that are a rich source of macro- and micro-nutrients.

A focus on traditional cash crops production may not always lead to improved nutrition. Policies and agri-food innovations that bridge the gap between agricultural production and nutrition-related outcomes need to be prioritised.

In other words, the emphasis should be on improved nutrition through pro-poor consumption growth of foods that are a rich source of nutrients and micronutrients.

Related: Imran Khan may have counted his chickens before they're hatched

Two sectors can potentially form the backbone of this nutrition-led agricultural policy. The first is the livestock and fisheries sector.

By ensuring that small-scale fishers and processors have equitable access to coastal and inland waters, and by providing rational subsidies for inputs required for fish farming and by prioritising access and affordability of fish for the poor, the government can ensure better nutritional outcomes for its citizens.

Growth in fishery and aquaculture in Bangladesh led to poverty alleviation as well as growth in pro-poor consumption and better nutrition outcomes. Pakistan has the opportunity to replicate Bangladesh’s experience and use this sector to ameliorate its malnutrition crisis.

However, intensification of fisheries and aquaculture can potentially affect water use and management — so growth in aquaculture should be accompanied by technology adoption that can help reduce water footprint of this sector.

The figure below illustrates the differences in per-capita fish consumption between Pakistan and other South Asian countries, reflecting how supply-side policies could increase the per-capita consumption, which may lead to better nutritional outcomes.

Per capita fish and seafood consumption in Pakistan and the region.
Per capita fish and seafood consumption in Pakistan and the region.

Similarly, the livestock sector can play a central role in enhancing food security and mitigating malnutrition. The government needs to commission a breeding programme that enhances the milk and meat productivity of our indigenous species of cattle, sheep and goats.

Small farmers rely on these animals to feed their families and it is imperative that their productivity is enhanced and technology like biosecurity as well as better feed is adopted to extract optimal economic and nutritional gains from these assets. A highly productive livestock sector will ensure availability and affordability of animal-sourced proteins, which are key requirements in a healthy diet.

Figures below map the average milk and meat productivity of Pakistani breeds and those from other parts of the world. Differences in the figures reflect that there is much work that needs to be done to increase the productivity and profitability of our livestock.

Cattle meat yields per animal over time.
Cattle meat yields per animal over time.

Milk yields per animal over time.
Milk yields per animal over time.

The second sector that needs to be brought to the forefront in the fight against malnutrition is lentils and pulses.

This can be achieved in two ways. Firstly, Pakistan needs to adopt and produce high-yield seeds of lentils and legumes so that it does not have to rely on relatively expensive imports, which raise local prices.

Given that lentils can be efficiently grown on dryland (barani) areas, it is imperative that the high-risk and low-productivity drylands of Pakistan are converted into high-reward and high-productivity regions. An excellent example of such dryland farming can be seen in Whitman County, United States, where high-productivity seeds suited to the local climate are produced.

The world is increasing relying on scientific interventions to raise yields and incomes for their farmers and Pakistan needs to do the same.

Given that our dryland farmers are generally resource poor, such scientific interventions can have positive nutritional gains for the society, as well as positive income gains for farmers and reduction in demand for imports.

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At the same time, bio-fortification (breeding food with higher micro-nutrient content) of lentils and other affordable foods have the potential to bridge nutrient gaps in our population.

Bio-fortification has shown positive signs in terms of reducing micro-nutrient deficiencies in a cost-effective manner in India. Such initiatives can be especially fruitful for vulnerable groups like children and pregnant women who are more likely to suffer from micro-nutrient deficiencies.

The pursuit of raising productivity of our agriculture very much lies at the forefront of science and policy interface. The effectiveness of interventions will thus heavily depend on the collaboration between scientists, producers, processors and policymakers.

While most themes discussed in the article can be found in the National Food Security Policy, the latter lacks a clear road map on how the goals will be achieved and who is responsible for what actions.

A detailed institutional framework needs to be established, with clear goals and deliverables for the Department of Agriculture, universities and producers so that agriculture can be leveraged for nutritional gains.

Lastly, it is important to note that the above-mentioned policy goals only address issues of access and availability of food. Improving nutritional outcomes will also require efforts to reduce air and water pollution, lower the disease burden — especially in early childhood — and improve water, hygiene and sanitation conditions.

Are you involved in agriculture reform? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com