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improving food security in Malawi
One of the key underpinnings of public health is food security — especially in a nation with a fast-growing population, such as Malawi. Many organizations, including the nonprofit — Soil, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) are working to empower communities through improving food security in Malawi. How do they aim to achieve this? By working with these communities in developing productive, sustainable agricultural practices.

The Current Situation

Malawi became independent from British rule in 1964 and has made steady progress in building a more resilient country since the nation’s first, multi-party, democratic elections in 1994. According to the World Bank — literacy rates in Malawi have improved but poverty rates remain high, with 51.5% of the population living in poverty as of 2016. Again, per the World Bank — poverty in Malawi is driven by factors including low-productivity farming and limited non-agricultural economic opportunities. Hunger is still a widespread problem, as 47% of children in Malawi are stunted according to USAID.

Smallholder farmers make up 80% of Malawi’s population — largely growing crops to feed themselves. Therefore, improving food security in Malawi must involve more efficient farming practices to promote food production and economic growth.

Initiatives of SFHC

SFHC is working to improve farming techniques, nutrition, soil/environmental health and food security in Malawi. The organization coordinates many projects to support farmers by doing research driven by their needs. SFHC initiatives include building more sustainable food systems and using agroecological farming methods for improving food security in Malawi. According to its website, SFHC assists more than 6,000 farmers in more than 200 villages in northern and central Malawi.

Joint Research in Improved Agricultural Methods

Olubunmi Osias, a Cornell University student, spoke with The Borgen Project about her experience working remotely for SFHC this summer as a Cornell CALS Public Health Fellow. Osias is a research assistant for Rachel Bezner Kerr, who holds a doctorate in Development Sociology from Cornell University and is an associate professor at the same university. Kerr works with SFHC on the effects of different agricultural methods on nutrition and food security. Kerr also uses an agroecological framework, which is the study of ecological systems as it relates to farming. Harnessing ecological analysis can help promote soil conservation, crop yield and pest management — offering a way to improve food security in Malawi. “Dr. Bezner Kerr is looking at a revival of agroecology, including intercropping, where you grow different crops together. It is better for the soil and productive yield. Other methods are being developed to manage pests,” said Osias.

Osias sees agroecological research as a way to alleviate some of the lasting deleterious effects of Britain’s colonial rule on Malawi. This includes but is not limited to their encouragement of planting corn and other cash crops as opposed to producing a variety of food crops for local consumption. Not only did British colonial forces kill peaceful protestors who advocated for change in the 1950s but they also undermined traditional farming practices, to the detriment of food security.

A Community-Based Approach

In order to make sure that SFHC research to improve food security in Malawi is driven by the needs of local communities, Kerr is using a community-based participatory research approach (CBPR). According to Osias, CBPR has many similarities to other forms of research. However, CBPR is unique in that it is a partnership between the researcher and the community — rather than a researcher studying people who have neither influence over the research-study design nor the goal.

Better Research Makes for Better Results

Research projects like the one that Osias assisted with can contribute to improvements in agricultural productivity. This can in turn improve health outcomes by providing communities with better food security and a more stable source of income. 

Tamara Kamis
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Double Burden of Malnutrition
Typically, obesity and being generally overweight are thought of as problems exclusive to higher-income countries, while undernourishment is believed to be only within low- and middle-income (LMI) countries. However, LMI countries disproportionately face both obesity and undernourishment, which is known as the double burden of malnutrition (DBM).

More than one-third of LMI countries are facing the double burden of malnutrition. This rise in the prevalence of DBM is attributed to dramatic changes within our food systems. Globally, our diets have experienced a shift towards greater consumption of ultra-processed and high caloric foods. This includes things such as sugar-sweetened beverages and fast-foods.

The Double Burden and Poverty

LMI countries disproportionately deal with the double burden of malnutrition because they experience this shift in diet on top of pre-existing undernourishment. Poverty creates a tremendous strain on one’s ability to access proper nutrition. Impoverished individuals experiencing food insecurity may resort to purchasing ultra-processed foods because they are cheaper. This means that they are either not getting enough food to begin with causing undernourishment or eating unhealthy foods, which can cause obesity and undernourishment due to micronutrient deficiencies.

Undernourishment and obesity are health risks that interact and lead to one another. For example, mothers that are either underweight or overweight during pregnancy can face health risks themselves, such as anemia or gestational diabetes. They can also put their child at risk; being underweight could lead to a low-birth-weight for the baby, and being overweight could increase the likelihood that the child will be overweight later in life. The DBM directly impacts health and places a strain on the healthcare system, but it affects countries’ economic growth as well.

An Economic Burden

In 2017, the World Food Program (WFP) released a report examining the economic cost of the double burden of malnutrition in Latin America. Undernutrition and obesity undermine individuals’ productivity. Undernourishment hinders physical and brain growth, while being overweight or obesity causes non-communicable diseases like diabetes or heart disease. These health conditions create situations where it may be difficult for adults to work consistently, or children may be too ill to go to school. Losses in productivity can hinder economic growth, which maintains poverty and only worsens the double burden of malnutrition. The report claims that economic losses from productivity are “estimated at 500 million in Chile, 4.3 billion in Ecuador and 28.8 billion in Mexico.”

In Latin America, rates of obesity and undernourishment are increasing significantly. About 25% of adults are obese, and 7.3% of children under five years old are overweight. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Regional Representative, Julio Berdegué, states that “obesity is growing uncontrollably. Each year we are adding 3.6 million obese people to this region.” Additionally, rates of undernourishment are rising. 39.3 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean are experiencing hunger. In Venezuela, there are 3.7 million people hungry. There are 4.8 million people hungry in Mexico.

Combatting Malnutrition

The double burden of malnutrition is detrimental in this region and is causing great concern. However, many countries have implemented strategies to combat this:

  • Chile has approved front-of-pack-labeling (FOPL) that warns consumers if the product is high in sodium, saturated fats or sugars. It has also imposed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Brazil has increased infant breastfeeding by 32.3% and reduced children-under-five stunting by 30%.
  • Mexico is the first Latin American country to impose a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. It has also created a social welfare program called conditional cash transfer (CCT), which aims to make families food secure and use education and supplements to improve nutrition.

The double burden of malnutrition is a complex and multifaceted issue, which will require comprehensive interventions. It is crucial to target early-life nutrition, ensure that hunger programs provide nutrient-rich foods, and begin managing the production and distribution within larger food systems. While this task is daunting, it is essential to correctly address all forms of malnutrition in order to make the most impact.

Paige Wallace
Photo: Unsplash

Sustainable Agriculture in the Republic of Georgia
The beautiful Republic of Georgia is nestled in the picturesque Caucasus region between Russia in the north and Turkey in the south.

Much of the land between the sea and the peaks is green and fertile. Here, sustainable agriculture in the Republic of Georgia thrives.

In 2015, the Government of the Republic of Georgia began a push to improve its agricultural production for both economic and environmental benefit. The country’s agriculture strategy also aims to reduce Georgia’s dependence on grain imports, one of the country’s top import products.

The importance of agriculture in Georgian history, specifically winemaking, stretches back over 8,000 years. Wine has been and continues to be one of the most important aspects of Georgian agriculture.

The Strategy

The strategy has the vision to create an environment that will increase competitiveness in agro-food sector, promote stable growth of high-quality agricultural production, ensure food safety and security and eliminate rural poverty through sustainable development of agriculture and rural areas.

Each section outlines plans to implement everything from better irrigation, saving water and reducing water pollution, to improved animal husbandry.

On top of embracing modern techniques, they outline improving both industrial agricultural techniques and educating and helping smaller rural farms embrace these techniques.

The most important steps in the strategy from an economic standpoint are not just introducing techniques that will benefit the farmers’ crop yields while lowering their total overhead cost but the government’s idea to help bring crops to market within the country and for export.

The FAO and EU Help

The development of sustainable agriculture in the Republic of Georgia is not a solo mission.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), along with the European Union is partnering with the Republic of Georgia to bring its dream to fruition.

The European Union is helping the Georgian government by providing both money and expertise. The FAO has been working with the Republic of Georgia on promoting and implementing programs aimed at increasing food security since 1995.

From 2013 to 2015 the sustainable agriculture in the Republic of Georgia was spearheaded by a joint FAO and Georgian government venture. FAO assistance in Georgia has mainly focused on technical development and the livestock industry.

Wine Industry

It is nearly impossible not to talk about the connection between wine and Georgian agriculture.

Georgia and the surrounding area has been continuously producing wine for over 8,000 years. Grapes are one of the most produced agricultural products in Georgia and wine is one of the most produced industrial products. The country is known as the first wine-making region in the world.

While the wine exports do not hit the numbers that more notable wine countries like Italy, France, or Spain do, it should not go unnoted.

Georgian wine is beginning to gain more and more international recognition. This has the potential to grow the export industry surrounding wine and increase tourism of the country, both potentially big economic benefits.

Sustainable agriculture in the Republic of Georgia has been and always will be an uphill battle. Russian pressure from the North has historically put pressure on the region. Only eight years ago, the two nations were at war.

Georgia is pulling itself up by its boots straps and beginning to shake off the dust of the Soviet Union. The country is forging its own future from the ground up.

– Nicholas Anthony DeMarco
Photo: Flickr