October 13, 2016
This blogpost was co-authored by Elena Broaddus & Swetha Manohar.
In countries like Nepal millions of people rely on subsistence agriculture for the vast majority of their food. Naturally, low-income nations, like Nepal, face complex nutrition challenges. Is it possible to address these challenges from a food systems perspective? Doing that requires understanding the links between environment, food production, distribution and use—and furthermore, how these linkages are shaped by complex social structures and market factors. Yet rarely do experts in all of these areas come together in one place.
The Agriculture to Nutrition Scientific Symposium in Kathmandu, however, “brings everyone to the table.” Its popularity also reflects increasing attention towards agriculture-nutrition pathways within global development efforts more broadly.
This past July, the 4th Annual Agriculture to Nutrition Scientific Symposium engaged 350 Nepali and international researchers, program implementers, and policy makers in “Minding the Gaps Along the Agriculture-to-Nutrition Pathway.” It was the result of months of preparation by staff at the Nepal branch of the Nutrition Innovation Lab, which is funded under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Feed the Future Initiative. The Nutrition Innovation Lab works in nine different countries to enhance research capacity and generate empirical knowledge regarding integrated approaches to improving nutrition. Managed by Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, the Nutrition Innovation Lab also includes the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) and three other academic institutions as core partners. In Nepal specifically, principle investigators Dr. Keith West and Dr. Rolf Klemm from JHSPH have teamed up with Friedman School researchers to conduct the PoSHAN Study (a word that means ‘nutrition’ in Nepali and is an acronym for Policy and Science of Health Agriculture and Nutrition), and to host this annual research symposium with the support of a team of Nepali staff members and international and Nepali graduate students.
The symposium started in 2013 as one effort among many by multi-disciplinary researchers to take stock of current food systems research in Nepal. It has grown in attendance from 140 to more than 350 participants over the past four years, demonstrating increasing interest in and prioritization of agriculture-nutrition research, and in translating that research into policies and programs. It represents not only collaboration between US academic institutions, but also with Nepali government and non-governmental organizations.
Tribhuvan University, the Institute of Medicine and the Nepal Agriculture Research Council, along with the Nepali Technical Assistance Group, cohosted the event. Representatives from these organizations and other high-level government officials gave speeches during the inaugural session, along with Dr. Keith West and the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics’ Dr. Jessica Fanzo. These speeches emphasized the urgency of efforts across multiple sectors to improve nutrition in Nepal, the need to inform these efforts via better understanding of agriculture-nutrition linkages, and how Nepal’s experience reflects global-level challenges to ensuring sustainable diets in the face of rapid demographic shifts, globalization, and climate change.
The second day’s keynote address was delivered by Dr. Ahmed Mushtaque Raza Chowdhury, Vice-Chair of BRAC, one of the world’s leading organizations in poverty alleviation and public health improvement. His speech described components of one of the Bangladesh-based organization’s flagship programs, and provided a powerful reminder that addressing economic marginalization must be a core component of any systemic approach to improving nutrition and health.
Research presentations were organized into session by topic, including agriculture and nutrition governance strategies, the role of home gardens and the influence of mycotoxins on food security, agricultural production improvement approaches, and the role of women in improving child nutrition outcomes. Presenters included researchers from Nepali and international academic institutions, government policy makers, program implementers from local and international NGOs, and representatives from USAID, UNICEF and the World Bank. A poster session on the second day gave 22 additional presenters an opportunity to share their research findings. Recordings of each oral presentation, and descriptions of each poster presentation, are available here. The third and final day was dedicated to Nepali students and aimed to actively engage budding food systems research professionals. Professors from Nepal’s Institute of Medicine gave an interactive dietary assessment methods workshop, followed by a panel question and answer session, and finally a poster session where 60 students presented and received feedback on completed or proposed thesis research.
Although the symposium covered a broad swath of topics, study designs presented were nearly all quantitative, reflecting a need within the emerging agriculture-nutrition research agenda for greater cross-pollination with qualitative methodologies from disciplines like anthropology and geography. As in US-focused food systems research, despite substantial interdisciplinary collaboration, there remains a disconnect between researchers with divergent epistemological perspectives. The increasing awareness among international food systems researchers of the need to explore topics like women’s empowerment and household and community power dynamics underscores the need for methods of inquiry that diverge from those commonly found within epidemiology, agricultural science, and economics. Further, there still exist disciplinary language barriers that prevent researchers, policy makers and program implementers from truly appreciating findings from studies outside their area of expertise. The only way to bridge these methodological and disciplinary gaps is to keep working to “bring everyone to the table”—and the Agriculture to Nutrition Scientific Symposium is an excellent model for doing so.
Image: Chandni Karmacharya, an organizer from the Nutrition Innovation Lab (Katmandu) reviews logistics with KP Lamsal of the Nepali Technical Assistance Group / Arvin Saleh 2016
Swetha Manohar is currently a PhD student in the Department of International Health’s Human Nutrition Program at the Bloomberg School. She has worked with the USAID funded Nutrition Innovation Lab- Nepal since 2011 and plans to focus her dissertation on child growth in the plains of Nepal, utilizing data from the PoSHAN Study.
Elena Broaddus is currently a PhD student in the Department of International Health’s Social and Behavioral Intervention Program at the Bloomberg School. She is collaborating with the Nepal Nutrition Innovation Lab for her dissertation research with support from the U.S. Borlaug Fellows Program.