Malnutrition in developing countries is best addressed not by increasing the variety of crops grown on smallholder farms, but by improving access to markets.
This is the conclusion of a recent study done in countries in Eastern Africa.
The study by the Mwapata Institute in Malawi and the University of Bonn in Germany, and published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health, evaluated data from Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia, where 30 percent of children and adolescents are stunted. Up to 28 million children in Africa, especially in rural areas, have stunted growth due to malnutrition, the UN Development Programme says.
"Not only too little food, but also a diet that is too one-sided can have serious negative health consequences. A varied diet is thus an important means of preventing malnutrition,” said Mwapata Institute researcher Makaiko Khonje.
“We found improved market access to have a particularly positive impact on nutritional status.”
The researchers found that those who could sell their products at the market and in turn buy the foods they lack had greater variety on their plates hence boosting the nutritional profile.
Generally, a long distance to the market negatively impacted malnutrition.
“In many places, however, the appropriate infrastructure is lacking. The roads to the market are often so bad that transport takes a long time and some of the products spoil or are damaged on the way,” added Prof Martin Qaim from the Centre for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn.
The researchers analysed data from more than 50,000 children and adolescents from over 20,000 farms, linking these measurements to farm-level production diversity. Increasing farm-level production diversity helps improve child diets and nutrition. Keeping a large variety of animals also had a positive effect.
“Keeping goats or a cow, perhaps, in addition to chickens and other animals, can therefore improve nutritional status,” said Dr Khonje.
Smallholders in Africa have always been encouraged to grow more diverse crops to produce a variety of foods for their consumption. However, with land sizes shrinking, further farm diversification is a challenge. In the study most of the farms had less than two acres of land, and they produced a mean of 3·96 different species.
Dangers of specialisation
The researchers, therefore, recommend a focus on better market access to improve nutrition.
After all, producing additional crops for subsistence might cause households to lose out on efficiency gains from specialisation, and can decrease income-earning potential, worsening economic access to food.
“It's better to focus on the species that do particularly well locally and sell the surplus”, said the researchers.
However, it is also not advisable to specialise too much due the negative impacts of monocultures.
“A certain amount of variety also makes sense from an environmental perspective and to reduce risk for smallholders,” said Prof Qaim.
“Pure monocultures are certainly not the solution.”