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Nutrition and agricultural change in southern Honduras

Kathleen M. DeWalt and Billie R. DeWalt
University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA


Research on the relationship between farming systems [1] and nutrition systems [2-6] in southern Honduras began in 1981 as part of the International Sorghum/Millet Collaborative Research Support Program (INTSORMIL). The primary purpose of this project was to understand the socio-economic constraints to the production, distribution, and consumption of sorghum, an important crop grown on the Pacific coast of Central American countries. Because substantial biological agricultural research was to focus on improving sorghum in the region, we wanted to determine the most appropriate means by which such improvement might occur, as well as to attempt to predict what the socio-economic and nutritional consequences of such a change might be.

This paper briefly discusses the findings of our farming-systems research to provide a background for our discussion of the nutrition-systems approach. Although the focus of the INTSORMIL project was on sorghum, our work attempted to understand the overall political economy of this rural region. An understanding of nutrition systems is especially important for agricultural and rural development because it has become increasingly recognized that several decades of technological modernization and economic growth have not significantly improved the nutritional status of marginal rural populations. Because of this, there have been a number of calls for a re-evaluation of the potential for agricultural research and development projects to address nutritional problems of rural populations directly [7-13]. Arguments for the explicit ]inclusion of nutritional goals in agricultural research and development have followed two related lines.

The first is based on the realization that present approaches to improving the nutritional status of economically marginal rural people have not had, and are unlikely to have, a positive impact. Nutrition programmes are probably best suited for the improvement of specific nutritional problems in small target groups at special risk [8, 14, 15]. Overall economic growth, where it has occurred, has frequently bypassed rural areas. The notion the the benefits of development will eventually "trickle down" to the nutritionally at-risk in rural areas has not proved to be true [16].

A second, related line of argument is that the past failure to explicitly include nutritional goals or to anticipate nutritional impacts of agricultural technology may have led to the deterioration of nutritional status in rural populations, especially for small farmers. A 1980 review of nutrition, consumption, and agricultural development concluded that few programmes to improve the productivity of small farmers have had a positive impact on the nutritional status of their families [17]. Some may even have contributed to a decline in nutritional status. Several studies of the impact of Plan Chontalpa in Tabasco, Mexico [18-21], showed similar results. Productivity improved dramatically, but only the nutritional status of urban populations was improved; that of the children of farm families showed no real improvement. Post mortems such as these have led to an increasing realization that, while agricultural technology is not nutritionally neutral, the ways in which changes in it and in agricultural development projects affect nutritional status are not clearly understood [22].

Research findings on farming systems

Southern Honduras is an especially important region in which to look at the interrelationships between farming systems and nutrition systems. The country is the second poorest in a the Western Hemisphere, production yields per hectare have been declining, and a growing national demand for food has resulted in the inability of agriculture to produce enough. In addition, national nutrition surveys carried out by INCAP in 1966 [23] and the National Planning Council in 1979 estimated that 70% of children suffered from undernutrition. These trends prompted the United Nations to identify Honduras as a "food-priority country. "

Results of the research on farming systems have been reported elsewhere [24-27] and are only summarized briefly here. Our work in southern Honduras focused on three agrarian reform communities located on the coastal plains and six communities in two ecological zones in the highlands. We and other University of Kentucky researchers were in the field for significant parts of the years between 1981 and 1984, and conducted surveys in all the sample communities in 1982 and 1983.

We found that sorghum is an extremely important part of intercropping schemes of small farmers in both lowland and highland communities. These cropping systems have evolved primarily in response to the rainfall patterns. Southern Honduras is marked by distinct dry (December to April) and rainy (May to November) seasons. The amount of rain that actually falls during the rainy season is quite variable. The average of approximately 1,600 mm masks considerable variation from year to year. In addition, very distinct dry periods (canícula) often occur during the rainy season, usually in July but sometimes extending for several months. These add additional risk to the cropping patterns.

Maize is the basic food staple for southern Honduras; however, because of the rainfall patterns noted above, it is very risky to grow. To minimize crop loss, farmers plant a maize with a very short growing season. The main planting is in late April or early May for harvest during the canícula in July. If the rains begin late or the canícula begins early, this crop can be lost. Another crop is sometimes planted in August to take advantage of the rains after the canícula but this is even more likely to suffer from lack of rainfall than the early planting.

To minimize risk and to ensure some sort of harvest, farmers intercrop sorghum with the early planting of maize. Although this system does not make much sense from an agronomic perspective because the plants compete for the same nutrients, sorghum's greater drought-tolerance is a distinct advantage. The sorghum varieties used in southern Honduras are usually planted with the first maize crop (in May) but stay in the field long after the maize has been harvested. Because the sorghum varieties are photo period sensitive, the crop does not flower until October and is not harvested until December. Cowpeas and beans are also sometimes added to the intercropping systems.

Sorghum is used for three purposes in southern Honduras: as a grain for making tortillas, the basis of the household diet (see below); as feed for domestic livestock, especially pigs and chickens; and, in large quantities, as a cash crop in the national marketing system, usually for use as a livestock feed.

Basic grain production in the region increasingly has to compete with other commodities. Greater amounts of land are being converted to pasture for cattle [28, 29]. Small farmers often participate in the deforestation of extensive areas so that pasture can be sown. Fallowing cycles for hillside lands are becoming shorter [30, 31] as small farmers increasingly have to sow exhausted fields so that they can produce some of their own grains for subsistence. Soil fertility is declining and erosion is becoming an ever greater threat to the long-term survival of the ecological system [25, 27]. As a result, yields of the basic grains are declining. In 1982, for example, the average yield of sorghum per hectare was only 540 kg; the comparable figure for maize was 550 kg, and for beans 270 kg.

The more productive lowlands are farmed mostly by large landowners who plant cash crops such as sugar cane, cotton, and melons, and increasingly use land as pasture for cattle. A few agrarian reform communities were created in the lowlands during the late 1970s and early 1980s. These farmers often produce the same cash crops on land that is worked collectively [32], but each family is also usually allocated one or two hectares for cultivating grains for household needs.

Our research in nine communities in the region identified a number of production and storage constraints on the food crops. The most important of these related to the erratic rainfall patterns and the declining productivity land erosion) of the soil. Others included (in approximate order of importance) post-harvest losses to granary weevils, and losses in the field due to birds, plant disease, and insect damage [24]. These are all problems being addressed by INTSORMIL agricultural scientists. In our view, however, more important than the recommendations arising out of the farming-systems research were the constraints and recommendations identified by the nutrition-systems research.

Nutrition-systems research

We believe that a nutrition-systems approach requires that four areas should be addressed in agricultural research programmes that have improvement of nutrition in farm families as a goal:

a.targeting agricultural programmes to those at greatest nutritional risk,
b. understanding the use of crops and the potential impact of new crops or new varieties on overall diet, and predicting the impact of new agricultural technology on food consumption,
c. recommending ways in which agricultural research and development programmes may be used to improve the nutritional status of those most at risk,
d. monitoring and evaluating programmes on the basis of their impact on food consumption and nutritional status.


Targeting agricultural research to groups at risk or the nutritionally neediest is a crucial first step in incorporating nutrition into agricultural projects. As Reutlinger [33] and others have pointed out, agricultural and rural development projects often fail to reach those with greatest nutritional need. Information necessary for targeting research and projects to the groups at risk is thus important.

Targeting includes identifying specific nutritional problems (either through surveys or through the use of secondary data), identifying groups at greatest risk, and analysing the etiology of malnutrition to determine factors that can be addressed by implementing agricultural research. Several approaches to targeting have been discussed [34-37]. One includes identifying ''functional classes,'' that is, groups that are at risk because they share common problems, ways of making a living, resource constraints, and so on, and for whom a set of recommendations can be made [38, 39].

In our work, targeting began with the identification of sorghum as a crop on which research was needed. Sorghum has undergone relatively little study even though it provides the subsistence base of a number of regions of the world experiencing nutritional stress. If southern Honduras is similar to other areas of the world in which this crop is most likely to be used by groups at greatest nutritional risk, improvements in its availability should differentially benefit those groups.

To identify those at greatest risk for malnutrition in southern Honduras and to document the pattern of sorghum use in relation to nutritional need, we collected data on nutritional status and dietary adequacy of households, with emphasis on the use of alternative grains. Nine communities were chosen to represent the distinct ecological regions noted above: coastal lowlands where export crops predominate, and two highland zones in which food crops, mostly grains, predominate in a system oriented toward subsistence agriculture. In the higher zone, legume crops are also grown. Households were surveyed randomly. For information on food consumption and nutrition, female household heads were interviewed. We also collected ethnographic data in all of the communities through participant observation.

Estimates of nutritional status were based on anthropometric measurements of children 60 months of age and under. Length was measured in centimetres using an infantometer for children unable to stand unaided. For children able to stand, height was measured using a board with an embedded metal metro tape and a sliding headboard. Weight was measured to the nearest 100 9 using a spring-type scale for children under 10 kg. Children over 10 kg were weighed using a dial-face spring scale (both Salter scales). Children's weight for age, height for age, and weight for height were calculated as percentages of standard using the World Health Organization standards [40].

Of all the children measured in the research communities, 65% were under 95% of standard height for age (i.e., stunted), and 14% were under 90% of standard weight for height (i.e., wasted). Figures were similar for the highland and lowland samples. These data suggest that two-thirds of southern Honduran children experienced undernutrition at some time in their first five years of life, but that acute undernutrition, as measured by low weight for current height, is less of a problem at any one time (table 1).

Dietary adequacy was analysed using estimates of intake from 24-hour recalls of family meals and a food-use interview that focused on intake for the week before the interview. Amounts of energy and protein available to the household were calculated and expressed as a percentage of household needs. Protein and energy needs were calculated using WHO [41] estimates of requirements for individuals of the same age and sex as household members. These were summed for the households. On the average, families met 110% of their energy needs and 200% of their protein needs. This masks considerable variation, because 49% of the families did not meet their estimated energy requirement. Only 1 % of families failed to meet their need for protein, indicating that calories are a much more significant limitation than protein.

TABLE 1. Nutritional status indicators for children under 60 months of age in nine communities in southern Honduras, 1983

  Percentage of children
Highlands (N = 204) Lowlands (N = 65) All communities (N = 269)
Weight for age <90% 65 65 65
Height for age <95% 67 61 65
Weight for height < 90% 15 11 14

TABLE 2. Percentage contribution of food groups to diet in rural Honduras, according to two studies

  INCAP study (1966)a INTSORMIL sample (1982)
Energy Protein Energy Protein
Dairy products 7 13 3 9
Eggs 1 3 1 2
Meat 5 16 1 3
Beans 11 23 1 17
Vegetables 3 2 3 4
Fruits 2 1 1 1
Grains 50 39 75 64
Sugar 8 0.1 7 0.5

a. Rural area [23].

Although nutritionists at the National Planning Council in Tegucigalpa and at INCAP [23] reported that sorghum was not an important food for direct human consumption in the region, we found that this was not the case. Overall, basic grains, either maize or sorghum, provided 75% of energy and 64% of protein available to families in our sample, as compared with 50% and 39% respectively, reported by INCAP for 1966 (table 2). The pattern of use for the different grains varied among families, however, especially in the highland communities. Families in the poorest households - those of tenant farmers and share croppers and those headed by women - were much more likely than landowners to use sorghum rather than maize and to use it a greater percentage of the year, and were more likely to purchase sorghum for their food needs. They were also the families at greatest nutritional risk. Thus, we believe that improvement of the availability of sorghum is likely to benefit the most nutritionally at-risk segments of the highland communities.

In both the lowland and highland regions, some interesting variation in sorghum use occurred (table 3). Communities were originally surveyed in the summer of 1982, when sorghum use was quite low. A year long drought began with the second planting season in 1982, and that second maize crop and the first crop of 1983 were failures. Resurvey of communities in 1983 showed a dramatic increase in sorghum use. In the lowland communities this was accompanied by a very different attitude concerning the acceptability of sorghum as a tortilla grain (see below). Thus sorghum availability is most crucial in times of economic hardship.

The research also addressed two questions regarding the nutritional problems of poor Central American communities that had been raised by biological scientists. One was whether there was a need for "quality-protein" sorghum (i.e., high in Iysine). The second related to the finding by some INTSORMIL biological scientists that sorghum-based diets increased ascorbic acid requirements [42, 43]. This could be a critical limiting factor, because other dietary research suggests that ascorbic acid may be a limiting nutrient in Central American diets [23, 44].

Although the diets of communities in southern Honduras are poor, as we have shown, the limiting nutrient appears to be energy rather than protein. The need for high-quality protein is of course greater among small children than among adults. To address this issue, we surveyed the diets of children separately from those of the family as a whole to provide an approximate guage of the distribution of food resources within the family. We found that children were differentially fed high-protein foods such as milk and eggs. Our conclusion is that, while quality protein sorghum may be a potential benefit to some communities or groups with a severely limited diet, in southern Honduras sufficient protein sources are available and used.

TABLE 3. Percentages of families using sorghum for tortillas during the week of the interview, 1982 and 1983

  1982 1983
Highlands 7.4 68
Lowlands 2.1 25

We have not analysed our dietary data for ascorbic acid, but we have documented the wide availability and use of fruits and vegetables with high ascorbic acid content. Our qualitative data suggest that there are few times of the year when wild or cultivated fruits are not available. In addition, cabbages and potatoes, two foods with high ascorbic acid content, are consumed frequently. Cabbage is used several times during the week by most families, either cooked or raw. Market-basket surveys show that potatoes are purchased at least once a week by almost all families.

Our information on the availability and use of fruits and vegetables containing ascorbic acid differs somewhat from other studies. We are tempted to conclude that, because many of these foods are gathered from the wild and consumed casually, their use has been reported poorly in dietary surveys. The incorporation of ethnographic methods into our survey research allowed us to document the use of these foods. From our surveys there appear to be abundant sources of ascorbic acid available to families in southern Honduras. Thus, increasing the availability of ascorbic acid need not be viewed as a prerequisite to improving the production and availability of sorghum for human consumption.

Understanding and predicting

The second area of investigation is to understand the use of crops and other foods that are introduced or whose availability might be increased as a result of research. For example, the introduction of new, more productive varieties of crops would have little impact on local diets if the varieties did not have characteristics that would make them acceptable as food, or if they were nutritionally inferior. Acceptability is closely tied to methods of food preparation and the kinds of products that result. The grain qualities that produce an acceptable porridge may be different than those necessary for an acceptable flatbread or fermented beverage.

Preparation techniques may in themselves have an impact on the nutritional quality of food. The relationship between the availability of niacin and alkaline treatment of maize has been known for some time [45]. Because the effects of indigenous preparation techniques on the nutritional quality of a food may not be known, the introduction of new crops without anticipating these effects may lead to deterioration of dietary adequacy. Analysis of the acceptability and important organoleptic properties of food crops must also include an understanding of the beliefs and preparation practices surrounding the use of specific foods.

Sorghum has probably been a part of diets in southern Honduras for only about 100 years. The criollo (land race) grains used have been selected for their appropriateness as food as well as for their agronomic qualities. A wide variety of products are made from sorghum, many of which are also prepared from maize.

Tortillas are prepared from sorghum using essentially the same method as in making them from maize. The grain is heated in an alkaline solution made either with ashes or with lime. Ashes are more likely to be used in the preparation of sorghum tortillas than maize tortillas in the highlands because the pericarp of sorghum peels more easily with ashes. In the coastal lowlands the available firewood leaves a salty ash that is considered unsuitable for preparing tortillas; here lime is always used. The cooking time for sorghum is about a third of that for maize: maize is simmered for about 30 minutes, sorghum for only about 10. The hot mixture is then allowed to sit for several hours or overnight. Some women claim that the shorter the cooking time the better (i.e., whiter) the appearance of the sorghum tortilla. It is claimed that the quality of sorghum tortillas is equal to that of maize tortillas if the sorghum is not overcooked. Overcooking is said to result in a less acceptable, darker-coloured tortilla. After cooking and soaking, the grain is washed and the pericarp removed. It is then ground in a hand mill and reground on a stone quern. The resulting mesa is formed into flat rounds and baked for several minutes on a griddle. When some maize is available, it is preferable to prepare tortillas using half sorghum to stretch the maize.

While the tortilla is the most common and most important product made from sorghum, several other foods also use that ingredient. Hard cookie-like items are prepared from either maize or sorghum mesa to which ground fresh cheese, sugar, and other ingredients are added. During the winter months, popped sorghum is formed into balls using honey. A soft drink is made from ground sorghum mixed with water to which sugar is added. A thin porridge is made from sorghum mesa cooked in either water or milk. In the past a coffee substitute was prepared by roasting grains of sorghum that had been soaked first to prevent popping, and grinding them to a coffee like consistency. The beverage was then prepared as one would coffee. Sorghum was either used alone or mixed half and half with coffee beans.

All of these products were recognized in all of the communities surveyed. In all areas, maize was preferred over sorghum for use in tortillas and most other products; however, the perceived acceptability of sorghum as a maize replacement differed from area to area and from time to time. In general, sorghum was more likely to be considered acceptable in the highland communities, in which it has an important role as an insurance crop. In the lowlands, the commercialization of agriculture results in a diet that is more likely to consist of purchased foods. In this instance, when resources permit, maize is more likely to be purchased.

In our first survey of the lowland communities, few households reported using sorghum to make tortillas. In general, women answered our questions with the statement that, during two to three weeks of the year when maize was unavailable, sorghum would be used, but the "hill people" were sorghum users, not they. As mentioned, the second survey followed two cropping cycles of drought. During the drought, resources were much more limited in the lowlands than in the highlands. Therefore, because sorghum was cheaper than maize, it was purchased much more frequently; during that year responses concerning the acceptability of sorghum as a human food were much less negative. It was almost as though we were interviewing completely different communities from those sampled the previous year.

Thus the most important grain quality characteristics are those that contribute to the quality of the tortillas. Colour is the most important. The most acceptable sorghums were those that produced the lightest tortillas. Secondarily, shorter cooking time and ease of pericarp removal were mentioned as important. These desirable characteristics, however, have to be balanced against other important aspects of sorghum production. Post-harvest storage loss to granary weevils is a significant constraint on availability. Sorghums that are most resistant to weevils may not be those with the best food qualities. Several of the "improved" varieties that had previously been released in the region were more susceptible to weevils than the criollo varieties. While this did not affect the desirability of the grain when grown as a cash crop for sale immediately after harvest, many people found that the improved varieties were not suitable for home storage and consumption.

A second area of acceptability had to do with a different quality of sorghum. In the indigenous classification system in Central America in which foods (as well as illnesses and medicines) are classified as having an essential quality that can range from hot to cold, sorghum is considered to be "cooler" in essential quality than is maize, which is considered neutral. Although not all persons still continue to follow the hot/cool classification that is traditional in this area, some reported that nursing women should not eat sorghum tortillas because the excess coolness could cause the child to become ill. During the research period several women were observed preparing sorghum tortillas for their families and maize tortillas for themselves. Although sorghum is not considered by some to be appropriate for nursing mothers, foods prepared from the grain are considered appropriate for children, and children consume all the products made.

Even though they are appropriate and acceptable, sorghum tortillas are considered less filling than those prepared from maize. A common formula is that five sorghum tortillas are as filling as four maize ones. This may relate to the digestibility of sorghum. A considerable amount of controversy surrounds the digestibility of sorghum protein and its effect on human nutrition. Studies carried out with children recovering from malnutrition showed poor digestibility of sorghum protein using a product made from whole-ground grain [46]; however, this appears to be affected by the method of grain processing. Sorghum that had been decorticated and heat-extruded was found to have significantly better digestibility [46].

Relatively little testing has been done on sorghum prepared in traditional dishes. It has been known for some time that the preparation of maize for making tortillas alters the availability of several nutrients, including niacin and several amino acids. Subsequent to our research in Honduras, several INTSORMIL scientists investigated the digestibility of sorghum products using indigenous preparation techniques. Serna-Saldivar et al. [47] demonstrated that, when fed to young pigs, the protein digestibility of pearled sorghum subjected to cooking in a lime solution is roughly equivalent to that of similarly prepared maize. The digestibility of protein in several sorghum dishes from Africa in which an acid cooking medium is used has also been shown to be similar to that of other staple grains (Kirleis, personal communication). Further testing of sorghum products using traditional techniques such as heating in an alkaline solution would be an important addition to our understanding of potential nutritional problems inherent in sorghum based diets.

Recommendations arising from nutrition-systems and farming-systems research

A set of tentative recommendations was developed from our farming-systems and nutrition-systems research. These were discussed formally and informally with biological scientists, especially the plant breeder who has led INTSORMIL's efforts in southern Honduras since late 1981. Input from both social scientists and biological scientists resulted in a series of goals that have guided further sorghum research and development efforts in the region.

First, it was valuable to undertake a sorghum improvement programme in the region because this crop is differentially used by the poorest members of the population. The most resource-poor farmers grow the crop, and the most resource-poor families include it frequently as part of their diet. Thus, improvement of sorghum production, especially by the small farmers, would be likely to result in nutrition improvement for those most at risk.

Second, it was determined that the photo-period-sensitive varieties of sorghum grown in the region are uniquely adapted to the ecological circumstances. Early-maturing hybrids are only suitable for commercial farmers in the lowlands. Targeting results to those most in need would be possible more by improving varieties than by introducing hybrids. Furthermore, the possible double-cropping of sorghum in the lowlands could greatly increase pest problems because a suitable habitat for these pests (especially the sorghum midge) would be present for a much longer period of the year. As a consequence, the breeding goals have focused on improving the native varieties of sorghum grown in southern Honduras. Some work on hybrids will be carried out, but only as a secondary goal.

Third, the improved varieties that would result from the breeding programme should fit within the existing cropping systems. They should be varieties rather than hybrids, as farmers must be able to select and save their own seed because of the lack of resources in the Honduran government seed-distribution and extension programmes. Also, varieties would not depend on the development of an elaborate infrastructure, because they could be passed on from farmer to farmer. Farmers are already engaged in such trading of germ plasm. In addition, the native varieties are already fairly high yielding, given the conditions in which they are grown. The greatest hope for improvement in yield was thought to be through incorporating a dwarfing gene to reduce the height of the plants from the 3-4 metres of current varieties, which could allow the plants to put more energy into seed production and less into the stalk. It was thought that such reduction could be accomplished without diminishing the value of sorghum for livestock; the tall stalks are so woody that they are not very palatable for cattle. Reducing the height but keeping the leaf biomass high was the goal.

A fourth advantage of working primarily with the existing native varieties is that they have several important qualities for which they have been selected by farmers (e.g., a hard pericarp to give the seed some protection against granary weevils). Breeding goals include an attempt to enhance these qualities. As research continues and improved varieties are created, we feel strongly that their acceptability to farm families in the region must be assessed periodically.

Finally, it was determined that there is no real need to attempt to build a quality-protein component into the breeding programme. Calories are the limiting nutrient in the region, so improving yields and grain quality should be the most important goals for biological research.

Monitoring and evaluation

The data that we collected were not only for purposes of project-planning but were designed to allow us to monitor and eventually to evaluate the effects of INTSORMIL's research. We hoped that during the course of the project we could continue to collect anthropometric and household economic data to determine whether the benefits of the research were in fact assisting those for whom they were most intended. Because the social-science component of INTSORMIL was eliminated during recent budget cuts, further monitoring will not be possible. We hope eventually, however, to use the baseline information that we gathered to evaluate the impact of this research programme in the communities of southern Honduras.

Summary and conclusions

The inclusion of a nutrition-systems approach in farming-systems research in southern Honduras allowed us to directly address a series of questions important for implementing biological agricultural research in the INTSORMIL project. Information we generated has had an impact on research priorities for sorghum breeders as well as for the scientists working on issues of grain quality and use.

We have argued strongly for targeting research to meet the constraints of small farmers, especially those who rent land. At the same time, data suggest that much of the sorghum consumed by families in southern Honduras is purchased. An increase in the availability of sorghum in local markets with a decrease in price is likely to benefit those most at nutritional risk.

Information on sorghum acceptability and use has clarified the need to understand indigenous methods of preparation, both to understand the grain characterisfics necessary to produce acceptable foods, and to evaluate the nutritional impact of processing techniques. Finally, an understanding of diets and the place of single commodities such as sorghum is necessary in addressing the importance of nutritional characteristics of alternative varieties in establishing breeding priorities, such as the value of improving protein content or quality.


The research reported here was supported by USAID Collaborative Research Support Program Grant AID/ DSAN/XII(G)0149.


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