Op-ed: A Deeper Insight into Nutrition – Sensitive Agriculture

By : Ruth Oniang’o, Honorary Advisor, Sasakawa Africa Association


The concept of nutrition-sensitive agriculture is not new, but it has gained renewed attention in recent years as a promising approach to addressing the challenges of malnutrition and food insecurity. Reflecting on the mid-nineties, prior to the 1996 World Food Summit, the development of food based dietary guidelines led by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), omitted involvement from the private sector, often perceived as a ‘’villain” in the promotion of healthy eating.

Today, nutrition – sensitive agriculture takes center stage in development agencies’ dialogues, defined as a food-based approach to agricultural development that prioritises nutrient-rich foods, dietary diversity, and food fortification to address malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies1. This approach involves fortification during food processing and biofortification, introducing nutrients through selective breeding crops. For instance, Pro-Vitamin A Orange-fleshed sweet potato and High Iron and Zinc Beans are now globally accepted as prime examples of biofortification2.

Essentially, understanding nutrition requires awareness of the origins of important nutrients in our food, a domain where food science plays a pivotal role. Our soils yield diverse crops, offering a balanced, diverse, and colourful diet. The saying that colourful food is healthier holds truth3, as it packs antioxidants that are good for our health. Beyond plants, animals, insects, and birds serve as important food sources, making it essential to consider cultural relevance, availability, affordability, nutrition, and safety when thinking about food.

Encouraging healthy eating today is a tall order. Often, our dietary desires do not match what our bodies’ nutritional needs, as food serves its purpose when contributing to our health. To maintain balanced body weight, we need to manage the input and output of energy. Excessive energy intake leads to fat deposition in undesirable areas, contributing to obesity and overweight—major lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases rooted in metabolic imbalances4. On the contrary, populations experiencing chronic hunger exhibit underweight, a predicament humanity should not tolerate. While nutrients operate in scientifically balanced proportions, consumers find it challenging to fully grasp this. Therefore, it is essential to raise awareness about the origins of essential nutrients in our food, and the role of food science in ensuring a balanced, diverse, and colorful diet.

Promoting nutrition-sensitive agriculture is an attempt to demonstrate the importance of nutrition by advocating for diverse diets. Incorporating nutrition-sensitive approaches in agriculture is not just a theoretical concept, it’s a practical solution to real-world problems. By diversifying crops, integrating biofortification, and fostering sustainable farming practices, we can directly influence the health and nutrition of communities globally. Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) has emerged as a dedicated proponent of pivotal agricultural concepts, including the implementation of nutrition-sensitive practices across Africa, such as supporting the production and marketing of nutritious crops (biofortified and nutrient-dense), improving food safety and quality, and by promoting market-oriented agriculture to increase the income of smallholder farmers and improve their access to nutritious food  which have now become integral to its mission. These initiatives harmoniously contribute to the overarching objective of moving away from conventional monoculture towards a diversified, sustainable, and nutrition-focused approach in farming, securing the well-being of future generations5.

I urge policymakers, agricultural practitioners, and community leaders to prioritize the integration of nutrition-sensitive principles into agricultural policies. Let us collectively work towards emphasizing nutrient-rich foods, dietary diversity, and food fortification as indispensable elements for fostering sustainable agricultural development. In addition to policy changes, we must engage in proactive measures and implement communication campaigns aimed at educating communities about the numerous benefits of nutrition-sensitive agriculture. Illuminating how diversified diets contribute significantly to overall health and well-being and underscoring the pivotal role of agriculture in ensuring access to diverse and nutritious foods. By actively implementing nutrition-sensitive practices, we can effectively reshape our agricultural landscape into a channel for improved health and nutrition.