14 October 2015

The First Thousand What? Making nutrition more visible to economists. Guest blog from Yassir Islam, HarvestPlus

More than 1,200 economists descended on Milan this past August for their triennial gathering under the auspices of the International Conference of Agricultural Economists (ICAE). Among the bewildering array of topics covered, nutrition was very much on the agenda reflecting the development zeitgeist of our time. Indeed, a full plenary session was devoted to it. Also on the agenda was a symposium on whether consumers will accept foods that have been biofortified with vitamins and minerals.

In tandem with these developments, I set up shop hosting a HarvestPlus booth at ICAE for the first time. I was in good company, sandwiched between one of our parent institutes, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

As a communicator, this grunt work of sitting behind a booth and trying to engage passersbys can be both frustrating and rewarding. Frustrating because there is a pecking order at these conferences and being at a booth usually places you at the lower end; rewarding because of the rich opportunities for conversations that you just don't get by sitting at your desk, sometimes even with luminaries of the development world.

After a week in the trenches, I made some surprising discoveries.  Many delegates, regardless of whether they were from richer or poorer countries, were hazy on hidden hunger. They had heard about it, but struggled to hone in on what it was exactly. Similarly, when I began asking those curious enough to stop by the booth if they had heard of the first thousand days, I was surprised by the number of blank stares I received in return. This, despite then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being the face that launched the thousand days challenge five years ago, and despite more than 100 governments signing up to the global Scaling Up Nutrition movement which had embraced the thousand days challenge.

The intention here is not to chastise agricultural economists, or to generalize. (I will admit to having an M.Sc. in agricultural economics myself.)  I certainly could not have talked to everyone, and so perhaps my sample size was drawn from those who knew least about our work and were curious enough to find out. The lesson here is for those of us concerned that nutrition is invisible. Guess what? It still is. We are still not getting through, even to the broader development community, to the extent we think we are.

One reason might be the complicated lexicon around nutrition. I've been to events, for example, where nutritionists have argued about whether to use the term malnutrition or undernutrition and failed to agree. Today the nutrition community may have moved beyond these debates; but if we are still not getting through to people with a brilliant encapsulation of what matters most—the first thousand days of life, a concept that lends itself to powerful storytelling—then we have a problem. 

A second reason is that we simply don't tell enough stories. Human beings are wired for storytelling; statistics and graphs are simply not sticky enough, unless you are preaching to the choir, and even now and then a choir needs its spirits lifted.

Third, as Lawrence Haddad and others have pointed out, there are still no “Departments of Nutrition,” and so nutrition tends to fall through the cracks. As for hidden hunger, while insidious and far-reaching in its effects, it does its damage from within—there are no images of famine-scarred children to share through social media with audiences that are increasingly inured to the quieter suffering in the world.

Here’s how I finally got through to my audience:  I made nutrition more relevant to the work and interests of each member. One delegate said he worked on improving economic productivity in his country. How, I asked, will you do that when 20 percent of your work force will grow up to be compromised because of hidden hunger in childhood?  Another was concerned about the impacts of climate change on agricultural yield. What about the nutritional quality of food? I asked. There is some evidence that nutritional quality will decline for some staples along with yields. How will you nourish your citizens with a smaller and less nutritious harvest at the end of the day? Asking these questions led to some “aha” moments, and as a communicator, nothing is more satisfying than that.

But we need to continue to hammer away at this, and find ways to communicate why nutrition still needs to move up the agenda of researchers, policymakers, and donors. We still talk—too much I would argue--—within our silos.

Reductionist disciplinary investigations may give us greater insights into the world's problems, but holistic inter-disciplinary conversations is what it will take to solve them.

Yassir Islam is Head of Communications at HarvestPlus, a global program that improve nutrition and public health by developing and promoting biofortfied food crops that are rich in vitamins and minerals. HarvestPlus is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH)CGIAR is a global agriculture research partnership for a food secure future. The HarvestPlus program is coordinated by two of these centers, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

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