Food First; a Down-to-Earth Approach to Nutrition and Rural Development

By Lunven, Paul | UNESCO Courier, April 1984 | Go to article overview

Food First; a Down-to-Earth Approach to Nutrition and Rural Development


Lunven, Paul, UNESCO Courier


It is generally accepted that the problem of hunger and malnutrition can only be solved by tack ling the root causes, that is to say, by improving the economic and social conditions of the poorest classes of the population. Malnutrition, which is particularly widespread in the rural areas but is also to be found in towns, is always directly linked to the development of agriculture. In developing countries which lack mineral resources, agriculture is the chief source of pincome and employment, an important supplier of food to both town and countryside, and an essential contributor to the foreign trade balance. Responsibility for improving a country's nutritional situation falls, therefore, to those in charge of agriculture planning.

Despite lthe conisderable efforts which have been made in developing countries to stimulate agricultural production and rural development, a large proportion of the population, especially children, still suffer from malnutrition. Although significant progress has been made in productivity, it has not led to a perceptible improvement in food consumption and nutritional levels.

According to FAO estimates, aboiut a quarter of the total population in developing countries (excluding Asian countries with centrally planned economies) do not have access to a diet which meets the minimum energy needs of a human being.

Since the vast majority of the malnourished are from poor rural families, farm labourers and small subsistence farmers, it can fairly be concluded that any significant reduction in the prevailing malnutrution can be achieved only insofar as agricultural policies and projects include food and nutritional objectives Consequently, it must be ensured that the ultimate beneficiaries of development are the most needy and that the benefits of development are primarily applied to eliminating the most glaring deficiencies.

To ensure the future prosperity of the populations concerned, and to achieve a general improvement in nutrition and food consumption, there must be bothe a reorientation and a better utilization of existing resources, in addition to ad hoc nutritional action of the traditional type such as education and supplementary feeding.

Reorientation of agricultural production in order to provide for target groups (certain categories of persons within families and certain categories of families within communities) is one of the most important aspects of development--and one of the most difficult to achieve. It often comes up against political opposition or administrative obstacles. Ti is necessary to ascertain the activities of the needy groups to be assisted, the kinds of food they eat and the ways in which they provide for their food needs, especially during periods when supplies are difficult to obtain. For instance, the poor generally consume a high proportion of cereals and tubers such as manioc or sweet potatoes, whereas the well-off consume a higher proportion of oils (which provide a large amount of energy) and meat.

Well-off consumers do not suffer from the alternation of the seasons. On the other hand poor farmers, in addition to looking after their own farms, have to work outside during peak periods. Their wives have to do a bigger share of the farm work and ther is a danger that the subsistence of the family may become largely dependent on the friot of the woman's labours. The children are then called upon to help in the fields. In addition to all the problems due to uncertainty of foods supplies and the low level of their incomes compared to the hours of work they put in, the poor have to cope with indebtedness, illness and high rate of infant mortaliity.

For all these reasons the FAO and other United Nations agencies have for several years been studying the processes which link the food consumption of low-income rural populations to agricultural investment, in order to measure their impact and identify the mechanisms which would enable agricultural planners to take account of food and nutritional considerations in agricultural development woek at the project level. …

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