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Generating multidisciplinary action: the importance of interface activity between agriculture, food science, and nutrition

H.A.B. Parpia

United Nations University, Tokyo, Japan

The spectre of hunger, poverty, and malnutrition continues to stare at mankind. It represents a multidisciplinary challenge of no small magnitude and therefore requires a multidisciplinary approach to find a solution. Science and technology have been able to make meaningful contributions to socioeconomic development only when they have acted in an interdisciplinary manner to solve the problems. The United Nations University has therefore recognized the value of such an approach and has given special attention to organizing activities that would involve teams of scientists (both social and natural), technologists, policy-makers and planners (including development economists) and the implementers of programmes to collectively look into the major problems of mankind and find solutions for them through co-operative efforts. The United Nations University is doing this in the hope that the concerned disciplines will stimulate each other consciously and create a comprehensive and dynamic system capable of multidisciplinary action that could increase the pace of progress towards establishment of a more equitable and just social order in this world. This effort could convert the vicious circles in which we are caught at present into dynamic development cycles. What can agriculture, food science, and nutrition contribute towards this effort? And how can all three fields interact with each other and with other areas in order to benefit society? These questions need to be critically examined.

It is with this objective in mind that the UN University has supported the organization of interface workshops. It is hoped that the present workshop on the interfaces between agriculture. nutrition, and food science will provide an opportunity for better understanding of the whole system in greater depth and in relation to actual problems, so that more meaningful multidisciplinary solutions can be sought through co-operation between the scientific communities concerned in other fields.

The world population, which at present stands at about 4,300 million, is expected to reach a figure of well over 6,000 million by the year 2000 (FAO 1979). Agricultural production has barely kept pace even with the present need. The requirement of food, even to meet minimum need, will be nearly twice the present production level by the turn of the century and the challenges for the next century would become much greater. Food losses continue to be high and take away from mankind a substantial amount of what is produced with a great deal of inputs and human effort. The consequent qualitative deterioration of food, resulting from infestation by rodents, insects, and micro-organisms, adds to the problem of malnutrition. Prevention of these losses would increase and improve food supplies without additional demand on land, and raise nutritional standards.

The UN University looks to this workshop to provide multidisciplinary leadership, and for its recommendations that may be useful in moving forward more rapidly towards solving this global problem, which is among the greatest challenges facing mankind in the twenty-first century. scientifically, socially, and politically. In this, the efforts of the organs, organizations and bodies of the United Nations system will have an important role to play, but the real efforts needed will have to come from the countries themselves where the problem really exists.

The Role of Science and Technology

The phenomenal rate at which science and technology continue to develop is clear from even one single indicator: 3,000 words of scientific literature are published every minute. Yet their impact on developing countries has been far from satisfactory. Only a few developing countries have benefited. These are the countries that have recognized the nature and magnitude of their problems, and have built capabilities in the form of human resources and institutions able to use the available knowledge, generate new knowledge, and further bring about its interaction with society to produce technologies that can be absorbed into the social system. It must, however, be noted that the interaction that has taken place between science and society in advanced countries cannot always be the same as that required in the developing countries because of the fact that conditions are vastly different. There is a need in the developing countries to bring about more meaningful and deliberate interaction between science and society if technologies are to be generated that would be really useful to them. Trained human resources that can bring about the interaction must be created, that is, people who understand not only the disciplines of science and technology, but also the interfaces involved in ensuring a multidisciplinary effort. Only then will the results produced be such as to bring real benefit to the countries by triggering self-reliant and long-lasting processes of progress. The developing countries, which represent nearly 70 per cent of human-kind, account for barely 5 per cent of the world expenditure on research and development in science and technology. If they have to achieve the desired results, every effort must be made to build their capabilities and optimize their impact through creation of multidisciplinary networks of co-operating institutes. The UN University is giving special attention to the need for this type of development in its Medium Term Perspective for 1982/87 (UNU 1981).

The present poverty and socio-economic stagnation has resulted in creating a condition where 65 per cent* of the world population live on about 15 per cent of the world income (Parpia 1979). The economy of these countries is primarily based on agriculture; therefore, it is through agriculture and related fields of economic activity that resources have to be generated that would contribute to overcoming poverty and bringing nutritious food within the reach of the common man. To talk of nutrition in isolation from raising income levels and increasing food supplies would be like telling the poor that if they do not have bread they should eat cake.

The approach for developing countries

When one considers the available potential, there is a great deal of hope for improving the situation. It is unfortunate that such negative aspects as the limitation of resources, population growth, and environment have received greater publicity than the positive aspects. To exploit fully the resources available. there is an urgent need for both the political will and the provision of financial resources to build scientific capabilities. The data in table 1 show that there is considerable potential for better land utilization.

TABLE 1. Land Use, 1950 and 1960

Region Arable as
% of total
Cultivated as
% of arable
Cultivated as
% of total
Arable plus
% of total
1950 1960 1950 1960 1950 1960 1950 1960
Africa 14.27 15.30 36.21 42.72 5.2 6.5 46.50 49.02
Middle East 12.87 13.91 52.11 57.88 6.7 8.1 13.06 17.34
Asia 19.03 20.78 82.06 86.17 15.6 17.9 46.35 49.60
Frontier countries (North and South America, USSR, Australia, and New Zealand) 6.88 7.75 82.85 82.96 5.7 6.4 34.27 38.59
Europe 30.79 30.98 89.02 90.06 27.4 27.9 45.63 46.10
All regions 10.73 11.73 82.74 83.99 8.9 9.9 37.35 41.07

Source: Eckholm 1976.

Different approaches are needed to increase production in developing countries from those adopted so far. At present the developing countries use barely 15 to 20 per cent of the world supply of chemical fertilizers (table 2), and much of this is used to increase production of non-food cash crops that earn foreign exchange. Less than 20 per cent of farmers actually use fertilizers and pesticides, and most developing countries do not have a proper distribution system for these inputs. Yet it would be improper and perhaps even dangerous for them to copy the Western system. For example, in the United States nearly 300 litres of crude petroleum are used to produce one acre of corn (Pimentel et al. 1973; Steinhart and Steinhart 1974). Even if such an expensive production system were possible, the cost of food thus raised would rise to a level where it would be out of reach of a larger number of people in developing countries. Besides, there would not be the availability of fossil fuel resources in such large quantities over a period of time. Accordingly, much greater effort is needed, on the one hand, in the area of increasing the use of biological fertilizers and developing new technologies leading to better nitrogen fixation, and, on the other, for the development of new technologies to make chemical fertilizers using solar energy and wind power. All we have done so far represents sporadic attempts to make certain nitrogen compounds (nitrites) using unconventional technologies; much more effort is required in that direction. Certain non-conventional food plants that furnish both protein and calories also need careful examination. Also, new technologies would be needed to conserve and process new foods, and to render them acceptable under different cultural conditions and food consumption patterns.

TABLE 2. Level of Fertilizer Consumption in Selected Countries - Kg N-P-K per Hectare of Arable Land, 1974/75


Level of fertilizer consumption


Level of fertilizer consumption

















Costa Rica










Republic of Korea


Federal Republic of Germany


United States of America


Source: FAO Fertilizer Review 1974

The post-harvest phases

Despite the emphasis on raising agricultural production, shortages of food continue, showing that such efforts must in future follow a different course. In addition, much greater efforts are needed on the next phase, that of post-harvest conservation and processing. Estimates of losses that occur at various points in the post-harvest system are illustrated in tables 3 and 4. Some of these represent intelligent estimates and indicate the need for much more data to be collected. These losses are not only quantitative but qualitative in nature (tables 5, 6 and 7). Within four weeks of insect infestation, the protein efficiency ratio (PER) of wheat and legumes can come down substantially (table 5), while the food itself becomes unacceptable through development of undesirable metabolites.

TABLE 3. Estimates of Quantitative Losses during the Handling and Processing of Rice in Southern Asia

Operation Range of losses (%)
Harvesting 1-3
Handling 2-7
Threshing 2-6
Drying 1-5
Storing 2-6
Milling 2-10
Total 10-37

Source: De Padua. 1975.

TABLE 4. Some Estimates of Losses in Different Areas

Region Crop Loss
Percentagea Value (millions)
Nigeriab Sorghum 46  
Cow-pea 41  
United Statesc Stored grain   US$ 500
Packed food   US$ 150
All crops   US$3.500
Indiad All grains:    
Field loss 25  
Storage loss 15  
Handling and processing loss 7  
Other losses 3  
Federal Republic of Germanye Harvested grain   DM 77.4
Sierra Leonef Rice   41
Maize   14
Tropical Africag All crops:    
Storage and handling   30

a. These percentages refer to post-harvest losses unless otherwise stated. Although in most cases the figures refer to specific crops, they are sufficiently indicative to lay emphasis on the problem of food losses.
b. National Stored Products Research Institute 1952.
c. Metcalf 1962.
d. Majumder and Parpia 1965.
e. Frey 1951.
f. West African Stored Products Research Unit 1962.
g. FAO 1964.

TABLE 5. Mean Growth Rate and Protein Efficiency Ratio of Rats Fed on Wheat and Bengal Gram Dhal (dehusked split chick-peas) with and without Infestation (duration of experiment: four weeks; 10 female rats per group: protein level—10 per cent)

Group Initial
body weight (g)
Gain in body weight g/4 weeks Protein intake g/4 weeks PERa PER correctedb
I Wheat (uninfested) 41.0 389 187 2.09 1.86
II Wheat (infested) 41 0 30.5 19.9 1.53 1.36
III Bengal gram dhal (uninfested) (chick-pea) 41.0 54.0 21.8 2.48 2.21
IV Bengal gram dhal (infested) (chick-pea) 41.0 44.8 21 5 2.08 1.85
V Wheat + Bengal gram dhal (6% + 4% protein) (uninfested) 41.0 61.3 21.5 2.86 2 55
VI Wheat + Bengal gram dhal (6% + 4% protein) (infested) 41.0 49.8 20.4 2.44 2.17
VII SMP (control) 41.0 76.9 22.8 2.27 3.00
Standard error of the mean (54 df) + 1.32 + 0.07      

Results by Duncan's multiple range test at 5 per cent:
Gain in weight: All the differences are significant

Groups: II IV I VI V VII  
PER 1.53 2.08 2.09 2.44 2.48 2.86 3.37

Note: All means underscored by the same line are not significantly different. All means not underscored by the same line are significantly different.

a. Protein efficiency ratio.
b. PER corrected, taking the PER of SMP as 3.00.

Source: Personal correspondence with Dr. M. Swaminathan, CFTRI, Mysore

TABLE 6. Correlation Coefficient between Associated Factors in Sorghum

X Y Correlation coefficient
Moisture Free fatty acid 0.202
  Fungi 0.170
  Total uric acid 0.339
  Apparent uric acid 0.240
  True uric acid 0.129
Fungi Free fatty acids 0.234
  Total uric acid 0.317
  Apparent uric acid 0.904
  True uric acid 0.069
Insect count Kernel damage 0.549
  Total uric acid 0.127
Kernel damage Total uric acid 0.489
Toral uric acid Apparent uric acid 0.893

Source: Majumder 1972.

TABLE 7. Undesirable and Harmful Metabolites Produced on Food Grains by Infesting Agents




Uric acid Apparent uric acid Gramine
Moisture Moisture Foul odour
Exuvae Discoloration Allergans
Chitin Mycotoxins  
Dead insects Thermogenesis Pathogen vector
Frass Musty odour Debris
Killed germ Loss of viability  

The expected world production of cereals by 1985 will be about 1,500 million tons; even a 10 per cent loss would amount to 150 million tons. In monetary terms, taking a modest price of US$200/ton, this would amount to US$30,000 million. Similar or even greater losses occur per ton of grain legumes, which are the main source of protein in many developing countries, and are crops of higher economic value. This shows that an increase in research, development and technology transfer activities in the postharvest field would be more than justified even if half the losses could be prevented. Success would contribute to raising incomes and producing alternative employment in agro-industries, improvement of nutritional levels, increased use of inputs to raise agricultural production, and substantial saving on much-needed foreign exchange. This will have a substantial impact on poverty reduction which would contribute to reduction of hunger.

It is often forgotten that very few agricultural commodities become food without some sort of processing and, in the process, they generate a great deal of employment. Today, about US$30.000 million worth of agricultural commodities are exported by the developing countries out of which the importing countries make products worth US$240,000 million. This picture must change if trade balance is to be improved.

Another way to increase food supplies is to lay stress on greater use of primary foods. In terms of total availability of primary foods, the world produces three times its requirements. It is the consumption pattern, especially in the affluent countries, that distorts this picture, when huge amounts of basic foods are converted into secondary animal foods. Table 8 gives a picture of how food consumption patterns contribute to the food problem (Borgstrom 1974). Consumers of a large amount of animal food have faced many serious health problems such as atherosclerosis and diverticular diseases. It is estimated that in countries like Canada and the United States, the annual cereal consumption per capita is 1,000 kilograms, of which barely 70 are consumed directly. The 374 million tons of cereals used by them in 1969-1971 would have sufficed to feed the entire population of India and China put together.

TABLE 8. Calories in Food Intake per Person per Day (1970)

  I Total calories
(II + III)
II Plant calories III Animal calories
(- fish)
IV Feed calories V Total primary calories
(II + IV)
Unites States 3,300 1,869 1,431 10,017 11,886
India 1,990 1,871 109 763 2,634
Difference 1,310       9,252
Italy 2,995 2,206 789 5,523 7,729
Mexico 2,614 2,321 293 2,051 4,372
Difference 381       3,357

Source: Borgstrom 1974.

Many other types of post-harvest losses occur during the milling of rice, wheat, and grain legumes, and in the storage, handling, and processing of perishable foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish. Inadequate utilization of oilseed proteins for human consumption also represents a major loss. Hopefully these problems will be discussed in this Workshop.


The solution to food and nutrition problems requires a sound understanding of the interface aspects, in which agricultural scientists, food technologists, nutritionists, and others concerned would constantly interact with each other to ensure a multidisciplinary attack, and work as an interdisciplinary team in a concerted manner. Only through such programmes of action can the total agro-economic system contribute to bringing about the socio-economic transformation of the developing countries, and provide the stimulus that can overcome poverty through acceleration of the development process.


Borgstrom, G. 1974. The Price of a Tractor Ceres, 7 (Nov./Dec.): 16-19.

De Padua. D.B. 1975. University of the Philippines at Los Baņos, College. Laguna, Philippines. Personal communication to IDRC, Canada.

Eckholm, E.P. 1976. Losing Ground: Environmental Stress and World Food Prospects. Norton, N. Y.

FAO. 1964. Informal Work Bulletin. No. 24. FAO, Rome. . 1974. Fertilizer Review. FAO, Rome.

____. 1979. Agriculture: Towards 2000. Twentieth Session of the Conference, Nov.

____. 1979. C 79/24, p. vii. FAO, Rome.

Frey, W. 1951. Flaughblatt Biologische Bundesanstalt, No. 5, p. 8.

Majumder, S.K. 1972. In Proceedings of the Symposium on Post Harvest Technology, p. 209. INSA/ICAP/CSIR/FCI, New Delhi.

Majumder, S.K., and H.A.B. Parpia. 1965. Research and Industry Get-together. Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi.

Metcalf, R.L. 1962. Destructive and Useful Insects, pp. 41 43. McGraw-Hill, New York, N. Y.

National Stored Products Research Institute. 1952. Colonial Research Publication, No. 12. Lagos, Nigeria, p. 40.

Parpia, H.A.B. 1979. Willwood Lectures. Institute of Food Science and Technology, Dublin, Ireland.

Pimentel, D.; L.E. Hurd; A.C. Bellotti; M.J. Forster; I.N. Oka; O.D. Sholes, and R.J. Whitman.

1973. "Food Production and the Energy Crisis." Science, 182 (4111): 443 449.

Steinhart, J.S., and C.E. Steinhart. 1974. "Energy Use in the U.S. Food System." Science, 184 (4134): 307-315.

UNU. 1981. Medium Term Perspective 1982/87 United Nations University, Tokyo.

West African Stored Products Research Unit. 1962. "Colonial Research Studies," No. 28, p. 52. Technical Report No. 73. Sierra Leone.

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