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US Government Nutrition Research: Six Years Later

Global Food for Thought by Samanta Dunford
Research technicians working on the development of clubroot-resistant canola bag plants.

Were the recommendations in the Center on Global Food and Agriculture's 2015 nutrition report successful? The Council examines this question in the second part of our 2021 series to find out.

Ahead of the Nutrition for Growth Summit (NFGS) in Tokyo on December 7-8, the Council is revisiting our 2015 report, Healthy Food for a Healthy World, which emphasizes a shift in focus to promoting nutrition in the US Global Food Security Strategy (GFSS). Healthy Food for a Healthy World offers four recommendations for improving global nutrition: (1) strengthen policies to support nutrition-sensitive food systems; (2) expand the research agenda for nutrition-sensitive food systems; (3) prepare the next generation of leaders in food and nutrition security; and (4) develop public-private partnerships to support nutrition-sensitive food systems. This blog, the second in a series of five, examines our second recommendation, expanding the research agenda for nutrition-sensitive food systems.

The State of Play

Our 2015 report recommends a two-step approach to achieving a nutrition-forward research agenda: additional investment in research to improve health and diverse food access paired with a concerted effort to measure nutrition and health impacts of agricultural development programs.

Promotion of healthy diets is possible worldwide. Research investment has historically focused on increasing calorie intake, often through improved production yields or better market design, rather than increasing the nutritional value and diversity of foods. This focus led to narrow investments in creating high-yield varieties of a limited number of crops. A shift in investment to enhance productivity and accessibility of alternative crops as well as reduce the cost of these crops, for both producers and consumers, can help meet the goal of healthier diets.

Improved research on alternative crops can provide an added benefit to communities facing climate change and other stressors. Through adaptation of crops with increased resilience and extended seasonal availability, farmers can diversify the food baskets they bring to market. These crops are often important in creating more sustainable and responsible farming practices through enriching soil content, carbon sequestration, and erosion prevention. Farmers can be valuable contributors in the fight against climate change when researchers acknowledge their needs.

The demand for fruits and vegetables globally presents additional challenges as there does not yet exist adequate demand to incentivize markets in low-income countries. Lack of market infrastructure also leads to an astounding amount of food waste due to the difficulty in getting healthy foods to market unspoiled and intact. Advanced horticultural research provides a possible solution. By working throughout the supply chain, research extension can increase access to and reduce unit costs of healthier foods in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Finally, data are growing ever more important. Too little is collected in an accurate and timely way, from farming to consumers' diets. Indicator and metric design are integral to how researchers gather, use, and understand data. Better design will lead to better data. This will provide much-needed insights into how to adapt programs to the variable needs of small-holder farmers and their communities. A great example of how data is already being used to improve and assess Feed the Future (FTF) interventions and redesign research is the analysis of the program’s nutritional impact on children under the age of five compared to regions where FTF was not present. Additional data collection using a wider variety of metrics has the potential to reduce costs, spread knowledge, and increase the effectiveness of development programs and research extension.

Progress Six Years Later

In 2016, Congress passed the Global Food Security Act (GFSA) to create a whole-of-government approach to tackle food security issues. The resulting Global Food Security Strategy (GFSS) prioritized the improvement of nutritional outcomes through the promotion of highly nutritious foods, diet diversity, and nutritional-behavioral improvements. The GFSS identified women and children as a vulnerable population of particular interest. The lack of public and private-sector incentives and investment in alternative crops and nutritional outcomes was also acknowledged, revealing an innovation gap they hoped to address.

The 2017-2021 Global Food Security Research Strategy (GFSRS) sought to support the GFSA and utilizes research as an important part of the US update to reflect America’s evolving priorities. Primarily this research is run through the FTF investment pipeline focusing on three broad technology and practice driven research themes: advance the productivity frontier; reduce, manage, and mitigate risk for all levels of community; and improve knowledge of human outcomes through evidence. Additionally, nutrition and nutrition-specific food systems were integrated throughout the three GFSRS research themes.

Advancing Productivity

The first theme focuses on increasing the yield of potential crops, fish, and livestock and reducing post- and pre-harvest loss. Research also highlights the importance of breeders, both plant and livestock. They play an integral role in improving dietary diversity and human nutrition. Research seeks to support increasing yields through the improvement of food and feed quality. Increasing the nutritional value and quality of raw unprocessed foods without increasing costs substantially is integral to the success of such products. Post-harvest value, improvement, and innovation across the value chain is essential for the betterment of agriculture producers.

Reduce and Mitigate Risk

The second theme focuses on reducing risk at all levels, from households to regions. Research here acknowledges the changing climate and seeks ways to create scalable technologies to mitigate associated risks. Risk reductions result from greater resiliency. Food safety and the creation of much needed food system infrastructure help eliminate challenges that remove the focus from nutrition. In situations of greater stability, barriers to nutrition are more evident.

Using Evidence to Determine Outcomes

The third research theme provides an important check on the effectiveness of the prior two themes’ results, judged through their impact on people. It seeks a greater understanding of human behavior and the pathways from agriculture to nutrition. In the supplemental GFSS implementation report of 2017, the indicators and metrics used to measure success were redesigned to capture more information while keeping the burden of reporting and data gathering low. This improvement in the understanding of the effectiveness of interventions can be seen through their outcomes, agricultural income growth, and production diversity, as well as dietary diversity and human nutritional outcomes. The research prioritizes understanding the context of monitoring and evaluation data of cultural appropriateness, the regulatory environment, market access and fluctuation, and choice of foods. Overall, data on the ability to find a nutritious diet year-round and the related outcomes will help shape future nutrition-sensitive food system research for years to come. 

Nutrition Integration in Research

USAID wove human nutrition throughout research themes outlined in the GFSRS. They also highlighted the work of the Global Nutrition Coordination Plan, National Nutrition Research Roadmap, and the USAID Multi-sectoral Nutrition Strategy. The research strategy discussed a need to pay greater attention to obtaining knowledge about nutrition-specific and nutrition sensitive topics. The strategy emphasized diet diversity, food safety, and post-harvest loss reduction as variables to consider in wider research contexts. The relative role of investment also considered in the research objectives. Operationally, the focus was on cost effective and accurate methods of measuring human nutrition outcomes and optimizing the delivery of nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions.

Potential for Growth

While great progress has been made in nutrition-sensitive food system research, more can still be done to improve its effectiveness and expand its scope. The United States has acted, in part, on the recommendations made in Healthy Food for a Healthy World, but more can be done. The GFSRS showed renewed interest in nutrition; however, a greater focus on increased tracking of related data through additional tailored metrics has the potential to create low-cost, scalable solutions to barriers which nutritious foods and the food system face. At the 2021 United Nations Food Security Summit (UNFSS), the United States made additional commitments pertaining to nutrition. Some of these commitments, like investing $38 million in food fortification and $60 million in research funding to reduce food waste and loss, have interesting potential. We will see what further initiatives and commitments come out of the Nutrition for Growth Summit in December.

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About the Author
Research Assistant, Center on Global Food and Agriculture
Samanta Dunford joined the Council in 2021 to support research and policy activities including engagement with key stakeholders in Washington, D.C.