Agricultural diversity improves health

by Jeremy Cherfas on April 11, 2011

Here’s a turn-up for the books. A newspaper article headlined New farming practices grow healthier children actually delivers some specifics.

The article reports on a project called Soils, Food and Healthy Communities, a joint effort by Canada and Malawi, and I’m ashamed to say (or can I blame the project’s communications?) that I knew nothing about it.

The evidence of healthier children?

Ten years ago Joyce Mhoni, head of the Nutrition Rehabilitation Unit at Ekwendeni Hospital in the Mzimba district of northern Malawi, would have been caring for to up to 30 severely malnourished children at a time. Today, at the peak of the usually lean months between December and April, when farmers are waiting to harvest, the unit is empty, and in the whole of 2010 only 15 children were admitted, mostly from outside the hospital’s catchment area.

I know, it’s only anecdotal, but be patient. There’s lots more in the article, which explains that the changes stem from the SFHC project’s decision, around 2000, to open an Agricultural Office at the hospital.

[T]he project’s staff taught farmers how to grow different varieties of legumes such as soy beans, peanuts, and peas. They were encouraged to grow a deep-rooted variety of legume, such as pigeon pea, in the same field as a shallow-rooted variety like soy bean, a method known as inter-cropping.

Soy bean is high-yielding and a nutritious food source, while pigeon pea produces a large amount of leaves that can be dug into the soil to make an effective natural fertilizer.

Pigeon pea is also rather good to eat, but leave that aside. There’s lots more lovely human interest stuff in the article, and another one at the BBC, about the project’s profound impact on families: new houses, school fees, better health, a life without hunger. At which point, of course, the hard-to-please scientist asks for solid evidence in a peer-reviewed journal. Will this do?

There was an improvement over initial conditions of up to 0.6 in weight-for-age Z-score (WAZ; from -0.4 (SD 0.5) to 0.3 (SD 0.4)) for children in the longest involved villages, and an improvement over initial conditions of 0.8 in WAZ for children in the most intensely involved villages (from -0.6 (SD 0.4) to 0.2 (SD 0.4)).

And there’s more where that come from, which is here: Effects of a participatory agriculture and nutrition education project on child growth in northern Malawi.1

I wonder whether SFHC has considered going large and promoting other forms of agricultural and dietary diversity?

Footnotes:
  1. Bezner Kerr R, Berti PR, & Shumba L (2010). Effects of a participatory agriculture and nutrition education project on child growth in northern Malawi. Public health nutrition, 1-7 PMID: 21059284 []

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ford April 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm

It’s good that they’re growing soybeans, peanuts, and pigeonpea, rather than just one legume. But is intercropping them better than growing them in rotation (allocating a different third of the land to soybeans each year)?

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Jeremy April 11, 2011 at 9:31 pm

I expect they may get round to more detailed studies later. And I hope they go beyond legumes.

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Rachel Bezner Kerr April 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Hello folks, thanks for your interest in our work. We have been trying to increase the scale of our work, and have some support recently to scale up to other villages in northern Malawi, but have not yet been able to obtain funding to work at a much larger scale.
To answer your question about why intercrop legumes, we actually think that there are important agronomic and ecosystem services for ‘doubling-up’ the legumes rather than sole cropping them, along with some good people-centred reasons. The short-duration legume (e.g. groundnut, soybean) provides an important source of food for households, but less in the way of residue to return nutrients to the soil, while the pigeonpea has a lower yield and thus less food (albeit available later in the season, which is another advantage for farm families with one rainy season), but has deeper roots, drawing up nutrients from deeper in the soil, and provides more residue to improve soil fertility. We’ve published some of these results in two papers, one which is led by a collaborating research, Dr. Sieglinde Snapp, and which reports on national-level research but which also draws on data from our work:
Snapp, S. S., M.J. Blackie, R.A. Gilbert, R. Bezner Kerr, G.Y. Kanyama-Phiri. ‘Biodiversity can support a greener revolution in Africa’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1007199107

and one which is specific to our research:
Bezner Kerr, R., Snapp, S., Chirwa, M., Shumba, L., & Msachi, R. (2007). Participatory research on legume diversification with Malawian smallholder farmers for improved human nutrition and soil fertility. Experimental Agriculture, 43(4), 1-17.

And we are going beyond legumes. In the last few years we have integrated sweet potatoes, cassava, sorghum and millet into our research and development activities. Last year, we initiated a participatory climate change adaptation research project, which will include agroforestry activities.
I’m happy to answer any other questions about our work. Thanks for your interest!
Rachel

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