Diversifying agriculture for healthy diets

By Andrew Jones

Transitions toward urban living, the freer flow of capital and culture, and new agricultural and processing technologies have transformed food systems around the world over the past half century. Perhaps more than anything, homogenisation has come to define this transformation. The composition of global food supplies has become more similar in recent decades, and just a handful of foods now account for most of the calories we consume. Uniform, high-input farms, the hallmark of modern intensive agriculture, have produced an abundance of food unimaginable at the start of the last century. Yet, a healthy diet remains out of reach or unrealised for billions worldwide.

Monotonous, staple-based diets are still the norm for poor households in low-income countries, while more diverse diets, high in calories and ultra-processed foods, and lacking in fruits, vegetables, and legumes, are on the rise in every corner of the globe, cross-cutting social and economic divisions. Indeed, unhealthy diets are the largest single risk factor for the global burden of disease. The extent to which simplified farming systems may be driving these unhealthy dietary patterns is not clear. However, there is reason to believe that more diverse farms can support healthy diets in several different ways.

First, diversified farms can improve the diversity, and thereby nutrient adequacy, of diets of smallholder farming households that raise crops for their own consumption. Across many settings, more diversified farms are associated with more varied family diets. The size of this relationship is small, and some evidence suggests that adding new crop species to farms that are already highly diverse will not improve diets. Yet, among farms with just one or two crops, the situation for many poor subsistence farming families, a marginal increase in crop diversity can yield a proportionally larger return to diet diversity. It is also likely that policies or programs that intervene to diversify farms with the explicit goal of improving diets, would see larger positive impacts on diets, especially if combined with nutrition behavior change activities.

Second, more diverse farms can generate income for farming families that can be used to purchase more diverse foods. Certainly, investing in a small number of cash crops can increase incomes from agriculture, and there are risks that diversification could sacrifice gains from specialisation. Yet, crop diversification need not mean lost income. In practice, risk-averse smallholders often maintain subsistence production while diversifying into commercial crops. In this way, diversification can afford smallholders access to new markets for their production, additional sources of income, and indirect routes to improving diets through increased purchasing power. Indeed, more highly diversified farms tend to have higher incomes from agriculture, and the benefits of farm diversification for diet diversity are consistent across more and less market-oriented farms.

Finally, more diverse farms can contribute to more diverse consumer food markets. Even subsistence farmers in most settings purchase most of their food. Therefore, diversifying the small- to medium-sized farms that locally supply markets in low-income countries is essential for expanding access to healthy, diverse foods. Increasing production of fruits, vegetables and legumes is especially important given that the supply of these crops in nearly all world regions is not sufficient to meet recommended intakes. Yet diversifying agricultural production alone will not guarantee greater consumption of diverse foods. Post-production processing, and how foods are substituted and marketed relative to one another strongly shape the nutritional quality of foods, as well as food prices and consumer preferences. Hence, complementary policies are needed to ensure that the potential nutritional benefits of agricultural diversification persist throughout supply chains.

To be certain, diversifying farms is just one part of a larger effort that is needed to promote healthy diets through changes to food systems. Yet it is a vital one, and underpins the need to re-envision farms as agroecosystems, and cultivate an agriculture that sustainably supports multiple ecosystem services.

Andrew Jones is a public health nutritionist interested in understanding how food systems impact the diets and nutritional status of vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income countries. Andrew is currently the John G. Searle Assistant Professor of Nutritional Sciences in the School of Public Health and Research Assistant Professor in the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan. He has worked as a consultant for several institutions, including the World Bank, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and UNICEF.

Photo: ILO

Development Initiatives named new host of the Global Nutrition Report

The Global Nutrition Report Stakeholder Group is delighted to announce that Development Initiatives (DI) has been selected as the host of the Global Nutrition Report (GNR).

Corinna Hawkes, co-chair of the GNR said, “DI’s expertise in development data and its commitment to transparency and accountability will be a real asset to the GNR as we seek to increase its value as a tool for those committed to tackling malnutrition. DI’s work on the 2017 report highlighted their dedication to making it a success and we are looking forward to seeing its reach continue to grow in 2018 and beyond.”

Harpinder Collacott, Executive Director at Development Initiatives said “We know that the Sustainable Development Goals will not succeed without ending malnutrition – making it a key priority in global development. The GNR is therefore a vital resource providing independent high-quality evidence and practical recommendations on combating malnutrition globally. DI has played a supportive role with the GNR since its inception, and we are delighted to host the report for the next three years and build on the success it has had since first publication in 2014.”

Notes to editors


Anna Hope, Head of Communications at Development Initiatives
E: Anna.Hope@devinit.org
T: +44 (0) 1179 272 505

About the Global Nutrition Report

The Global Nutrition Report is an independently produced annual stock-take of the state of the world’s nutrition. The report tracks global nutrition targets on maternal, infant and young child nutrition and on diet-related non-communicable diseases adopted by member states of the World Health Organization as well as governments’ delivery against their commitments. It aims to make it easier for governments and other stakeholders to make – and deliver on – high-impact commitments to end malnutrition in all its forms.

Previous reports can be viewed at www.globalnutritionreport.org

About Development Initiatives

Development Initiatives (DI) is an independent international development organisation that focuses on the role of data in driving poverty eradication and sustainable development. Our mission is to ensure that decisions about the allocation of finance and resources result in an end to poverty, increase the resilience of the world’s most vulnerable people, and ensure no one is left behind. We work to make sure these decisions are underpinned by good quality, transparent data and evidence on poverty and resources, and lead to increased accountability and sustainable long-term outcomes.

Call for nominations: the Global Nutrition Report Independent Expert Group

The Stakeholder Group of the Global Nutrition Report (GNR) is calling for nominations to the Independent Expert Group (IEG) by 25th January 2018.

>> Read more

No Wasted Lives Coalition: accelerating evidence-based action on acute malnutrition

By Anne Salter, Research Uptake and Communications Advisor and Amy Mayberry, Head of Evidence, Action Against Hunger UK. 

>> Read more

Press Release

Global nutrition crisis threatens human development, demands ‘critical step change’ in response - report
>> Read more

Progress Marking and Progress Making – Global Nutrition Summit and Global Nutrition Report Launch Set to Catalyze Progress on Malnutrition

By Kimberly Cernak, 1,000 Days’ Senior Director of Global Policy and Advocacy. 

>> Read more

‘Back to school’: Investing in nutrition enables children to fulfil their potential

Guest blog by Arnaud Sologny and Melissa Kaplan, health advocates at Action Against Hunger, on the links between nutrition and children's development

>> Read more

Call for proposals: the Global Nutrition Report is seeking a long-term host

The Global Nutrition Report is seeking a host institution from April 1, 2018 for a period of at least 3 years.

>> Read more

Policy perspective: how implementation of the SDGs can put an end to undernutrition

In a guest blog,Christelle Huré of Action Contre La Faim discusses how undernutrition plays across the SDGs, and introduces a new advocacy toolkit.

>> Read more

2017 Global Nutrition Launch date confirmed

We are excited to announce that the 2017 Global Nutrition Report will launch on 4 November.

>> Read more