Ecowas says nutrition must be a core concern of agriculture rather than a problem needing an emergency response
"Animal production – that is nutrition." The statement by Victoria Tsekpo of Ghana's food and agriculture ministry summed up one of the themes that emerged at a nutrition forum of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) – helping nutrition find its place in the agriculture sector.
Health, nutrition and agriculture experts from the 15 Ecowas countries said nutrition usually gains attention only in the context of crisis and emergency response, but it should be integral to agricultural and development programmes if countries are to pre-empt child malnutrition.
"Today, everyone agrees that the health, nutrition and agriculture sectors must work together, but ... they do not understand one another," said Ismael Thiam, nutrition officer of the Ecowas west African health Organisation. "Their policies are developed separately, their data collection efforts are separate.
"What the agriculture sector collects is not what is needed to know the nutritional implications; availability of food has nothing to do with [the biological composition and benefits]."
The agriculture and health sectors know what needs to be done, but in most cases the mechanisms are not in place for countries to ensure sound nutrition for their populations and prevent crises, Thiam told IRIN.
"We have to stop taking malnutrition as a problem that calls for an emergency response - it must be integrated into development," said Mamady Daffe, head of the nutrition unit in Guinea's health ministry.
"In all food security programmes there must be a nutrition component," he told IRIN. "Agricultural production must be about quality as well as quantity. If we're focused only on quantity, we'll always fall into problems of malnutrition – either obesity or under-nutrition."
Participants said the agriculture sector focused on maximum production without adequate attention to the nutritive quality of what farmers were producing.
"The first step is for agriculture technicians to have a clear understanding of nutrition," said Narcisse Litaaba-Akila of Togo's agriculture, livestock and fisheries ministry.
He told IRIN the ministry worked with a government nutrition expert to develop its food security programme. "But still, in a document of more than 100 pages, only about one and a half pages cover nutrition. Why this imbalance? It points to a remaining problem of understanding the role of nutrition."
In many government ministries nutrition is not given due attention because policy-makers are not aware of its importance, according to Victoria Lebbie, who heads the women in agriculture and nutrition unit in Sierra Leone's agriculture, forestry and food security ministry.
"To them it's just cooking," she told IRIN. "But nutrition is not only cooking – it goes beyond that. It's agriculture; it's all about production, processing, preservation, utilisation."
Nutrition and food security experts said agricultural cooperatives offered an effective vehicle for infusing nutrition information into crop production as well as into household eating habits – a low-cost education method with huge potential returns.
"If we want nutrition messages to be imbibed, we have to use groups at the local level," said Bernadette Mordi-Onota from Nigeria's national food security programme in the agriculture ministry.
"In most countries, as in Nigeria for instance, we have a lot of [agriculture] groups – livestock groups, poultry groups, fisheries groups, and women's groups that are well-formed and they are involved in a lot of agricultural activities," she told IRIN.
"Women do most of the agricultural production, processing, storage and utilisation. So if ... [they] are taught about nutrition ... we will be able to combat malnutrition."