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Food, nutrition, and agriculture policy in West Africa: A new orientation

Persons concerned with agricultural production, research, and planning need to have a better understanding of nutritional needs and food processing and storage considerations. On the other hand, persons concerned with nutrition and food science need a better understanding of the problems, limitations, and potentials of agriculture for production of various food crops. To meet these important needs, the World Hunger Programme of the United Nations University has held a series of regional workshops in different parts of the world. The first such workshop was organized in Ibadan, Nigeria, jointly by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Department of Nutrition of the University of Ibadan, and was held in the IITA Conference Centre. The Rockefeller Foundation joined the UN University in sponsoring this workshop.

The purpose of the workshop was to bring nutritionists together with agriculturalists, planners, economists, and representatives of agriculture faculties from some of the universities and agricultural research extension institutions of West Africa, as well as the staff of the IITA. The following is a summary of the main recommendations of the workshop. (Two of the papers presented at the workshop were published in the food and Nutrition Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 1, October 1978.)

I Food Production

Agricultural planning has been limited, for the most part, to food production and to growing crops for export. Considerations of human nutrition should enter more into agricultural planning.

1. Agricultural research should take into account a range of foods rather than cash crops alone; special emphasis should be given to the food crops that are needed to solve the region's nutrition problems.

2. Import and export policies should take into consideration the nutrition of the people, especially those in the low socio-economic groups.

3. Legumes should receive appropriate emphasis in research and extension projects because of their importance as protein supplements to cereals and root crops. (In many of the developing countries where the major energy foods are cereals and tubers, adequate emphasis should be placed on the research, production, and extension of leguminous crops). Since fruits and vegetables, to some extent, make important contributions to the West African diet, research, production, and extension of these food crops must not be neglected.

4. As much effort and resources as necessary should be put into research on, and utilization of, a range of indigenous food crops.

5. Food production in developing countries is in the hands of millions of small-scale farmers and research into food production should be related to their needs (in their Iocalities).

6. There is a need to give priority to diversification of food production in different ecological zones rather than to overemphasize large-scale farms that produce only one or two crops.

7. In many developing countries, there is a need to develop efficient and continuous food production systems for the range of commodities needed for balanced diets.

8. So far, increased food production in the developing countries of West Africa has mainly been achieved through extending areas under cultivation, and by the use of improved crop varieties. This technology has been applied only to maize, rice, and wheat. High priority should be given to the development of appropriate technology for the increased production of non-cereals: e.g., yams, cassava, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

9. The current energy crisis that affects the availability of power for food production requires the development of low-input technology for small-scale farmers; e.g., more extensive use should be made of biological-nitrogen fixation and mycorrhyzal phosphate nutrition in order to minimize use of fertilizers and other chemicals whose production requires much energy.

10. In some West African countries, the increasing shortage of farm labour means that farming is increasingly being carried out by aging men and women. There is need to develop cheap, simple tools, implements, and small-scale machines and animal-drawn equipment, where applicable, that are within the means of small farmers to own and operate.

11. It is important to exploit the widest possible range of food sources, including animals (livestock and wild animals) and aquatic organisms from rivers, ponds, streams, and seas. Non-conventional food sources, where they are practical, economical, and of high nutritional value, especially for the vulnerable groups, should receive attention.

12. Efficient use and management of natural resources should be a major consideration in agricultural planning and development, in order to protect the human environment and to avoid the mistakes that have led to loss of forests and watersheds, waste of water resources, land erosion, soil depletion, and unnecessary use of prime agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.

II The Need for Post-Harvest Conservation

The very large losses of food to rodents, insects, birds, and moulds and caused by simple spoilage, inefficient milling, transportation, handling, and storage must be substantially reduced if the populations of West African countries are to be adequately fed.

Prevention of post-harvest losses should start in the field and continue after harvest, and should include care in the following aspects.

1. Drying. A major problem of food storage in tropical countries is the high moisture content of cereal grains and legumes. Major attention must be given to practical methods of dealing with this problem.

2. Transportation and handling. Because major damage and loss of foodstuffs occur as a result of present methods of transportation and handling, better techniques for minimizing such losses should be developed.

3. Storage. Efficient methods and structures for storage for protection against rodents, insects, birds, micro-organisms, and moisture should be developed for various levels of storage on the farms, in barns, in transit, in storage depots, and at retail outlets.

4. Food processing. There is an urgent need for governments to encourage and, if necessary, subsidize the establishment of food-processing industries to ensure better conservation and utilization of local food resources, thereby decreasing dependence on importation of processed and other foods.

5. Preservation through processing and packaging. There is lack of uniformity in the availability of foodstuffs throughout the year because of the seasonal nature of their production. High priority should be given to practical and efficient methods of preservation through processing and packaging. Methods of processing should be adaptable to the food preferences of the people and should, as far as possible, retain or improve the nutritive quality of the product.

At present, there is an absolute lack of adequately trained and experienced personnel and facilities for innovative research, pilot studies, and implementation through technology transfer, in this field.

III The Need for National Nutrition Policies and Programmes

Nutrition should be an integral component of overall national development programmes and involve all sectors of the economy, with special reference to agriculture, health, education, community development, finance, and economic planning.

1. Institutional arrangements. In each country it is recommended that a competent, interdisciplinary Nutrition Advisory Group or Unit be associated with any existing national planning body. This requires that a country make adequate institutional arrangements for national planning, implementation, and continuous evaluation of all programmes which have relevance to the improvement of human health and nutrition.

2. Marketing and price policy. Adequate marketing institutions and price policy constitute an incentive to farmers. Governments should ensure that necessary provisions are made to effect these objectives.

3. Subsidies and other incentives to producers. There is a tendency, in many countries, to overemphasize subsidies that preferentially benefit already privileged groups. Subsidies that encourage food production and also apply to the more needy segments of the population are required.

4. Income policy and equitable distribution of resources. It will be impossible to achieve and maintain political stability if the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen as it is at present in most developing countries. High priority should be given to programmes that are aimed at reversing this trend, because income distribution bears directly on the general welfare and food purchasing power, and hence, nutritional status and health of the people.

5. Specific nutrition intervention programmes. There are a number of specific actions that governments should immediately take to improve nutritional status that do not depend primarily on increased agricultural production.
These include:

(a) teaching village mothers to utilize nutritionally useful mixtures of locally available foods for the supplementary feeding and weaning of young children;

(b) the development of simple and relatively inexpensive vegetable mixtures as weaning foods for urban populations, institutions, and relief use;

(c) home surveillance of growth and development of infants and pre-school children to reduce infant and pre-school child morbidity and mortality;

(d) reduction of the nutritional burden of acute and chronic infections and parasitic diseases;

(e) the iodization of salt in countries where endemic goitre is a problem;

(f) the fortification of wheat flour and bread with a standard amount of B1, B2, and suitable iron salt, plus acceptable amounts of indigenously produced protein concentrate such as groundnut or soya flour;

(g) programmes to add indigenous protein concentrates to gari, vi, and other staples of the region in an acceptable manner;

(h) promotion of the use of green and yellow vegetables, including cassava, papaya, and other edible green leaves, as well as palm oil, as sources of vitamin-A activity;

(i) development of programmes for the prevention of iron deficiency anaemia, including the use of edible green leaves, and research to determine feasible carriers for iron fortification; and (j) careful testing of all new foods by recognized methods for their nutritional quality, acceptability, and toleration before marketing.

6. Nutrition education and information. Ignorance about . nutrition and the contributions of food to health and human growth and development is a major cause of malnutrition even in the presence of an adequate food supply. It is necessary that basic nutrition education and information be provided at all levels of educational training and for all persons in the community. Such programmes will require periodic evaluation of their effectiveness.

7. Manpower and training. There is a chronic shortage of manpower for planning, research, training, extension, and implementation of various agricultural, food, nutrition, public health, and rural development programmes. In each country, effective training programmes should be developed as needed, at all levels, and meaningfully executed as far as resources permit.

8. Required research and surveillance in human nutrition and food production programmes. In the execution of plans and programmes for improved food products and better human nutrition, continuous monitoring and evaluation are essential for their necessary modification in the light of new knowledge (constantly being generated through research), and changing conditions.

9. Relationship of family-planning policies to food, nutrition, health, and social welfare. The high rate of population growth in countries with limited capabilities for increased food production to match the rate of population growth results in reduced available per capita food supply, culminating in various degrees of malnutrition. Therefore, there is need for family-planning to keep the rate of population growth within reasonable bounds.

10. Research and training. There is a need to create national institutional and human resources for research and training in nutrition, food science, and food technology.

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