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Agriculture-Nutrition Pathways: Recognising the Obstacles

Policies with a thrust on access to food often fail to yield desirable nutritional results since the pathways between agriculture and nutrition seem to be laden with impediments, particularly in the form of intricate household preferences.


Agriculture-Nutrition Pathways

Recognising the Obstacles

Simantini Mukhopadhyay

with impediments, particularly in the form of intricate household preferences.

Looking at micro-level evidence, we find that households facing no dearth of food availability often show poor nutritional outcomes, particularly to women and children. Studies have shown the

Policies with a thrust on access to food often fail to yield desirable nutritional results since the pathways between agriculture and nutrition seem to be laden with impediments, particularly in the form of intricate household preferences.

Simantini Mukhopadhyay (simantinihalder@ is a doctoral research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata.

he emphasis on the role of agriculture in alleviating undernutrition burdens in India in the commentary by Kadiyala et al (EPW, 25 February 2012) is well-placed and germane. The implicit assumption underlying the analysis is that there are certain specifi c “pathways through which agriculture affects nutrition”. Gillespie and Kadiyala (2011) have documented the pathways as operating through changes in access to food, incomes, prices, and feminisation of the agricultural workforce. Agricultural production, when used for selfconsumption by cultivator households, ensures food security. Agriculture generates wage incomes for labourers and profits from marketed surplus for producers. One of the pathways operates through the proportion of agricultural income spent on nutrition-enhancing activities such as investment in human capital. Again, crop prices affect the income of net sellers and the food security of net buyers. Increasing feminisation of the labour force empowers women, improves their bargaining power in household decision-making and positively affects child health and women’s own nutrition.

The commentary rightly asserts that India has an immense potential in exploring these pathways by making agriculture “pro-poor” and “pro-nutrition” and lays out a blueprint for reorienting agriculture towards nutritional targets. However, it also argues that to reap nutritional benefits from agricultural progress there is a need for “catalysing critical behaviour change” through “community mobilisation”. We intend to supplement their point by suggesting that policies with a thrust on access to food often fail to yield desirable nutritional results since the pathways between agriculture and nutrition seem to be laden

Economic & Political Weekly

april 21, 2012 vol xlvii no 16

coexistence of hunger and undernutrition with being overweight and obese (often undernourished children and overweight or obese adults) in a large proportion of poorer households in developing countries (Pinstrup-Anderson 2006). Household-level studies on the determinants of children’s nutritional status have not been unanimous on the positive significance of wealth and income.

While in India we do find that lower levels of child undernutrition are associated with higher wealth classes, the proportion of undernourished children in wealthier households is remarkably high in comparison with international standards. Tarozzi (2008) has shown that privileges beyond household wealth (defined in terms of urban residence, high school degree for each parent, piped water and flush toilet) also fail to eradicate long-term undernutrition in Indian children. This hints at certain unobservable sociocultural and behavioural practices playing a crucial role in determining nutritional outcomes. It might be the case that in the presence of inequality, households derive greater utility from “status goods” and substitute them for nutrition- relevant consumption even when incomes rise (Marjit 2011).

Convoluted Links

Again, unleashing the “gender dimensions of agriculture-nutrition linkages” does not seem to be easy. It has been suggested that female empowerment leads to greater well-being of children and removes biases in intra-household allocations of food, health and care. However, these links are often convoluted. Recent evidence shows that maternal income is as good as income derived from other sources and makes no differ

ential impact on children’s nutrition
(Leon and Younger 2007).


Addressing the issue of the bias against girls in household decisionmaking, we need to recognise that such biases are not limited to the provision of food. Families are often willing to have more children when they do not yet have the desired number of sons. Thus, even when girls are not discriminated against in the intra-household allocation of resources, their mean outcomes may be worse since girls are more likely to live in families with fewer resources available per head (Jensen 2002). Again parents who are impartial in the provision of food to children may invest more in the healthcare of sons, such investment giving greater returns in the social system of patrilocal residence (Hazarika 2000). It would be naïve to expect that female empowerment through the process of feminisation of agricultural workforce will suffice to remove the multifaceted discriminations in the absence of effective behaviour change initiatives. Evidence shows that women’s empowerment may even perversely work on such biases. Thomas et al (2002) have shown that sons of Javanese and Sumatran mothers with greater empowerment (proxied by the size of assets brought at marriage) are likely to suffer from significantly fewer episodes of morbidity than their sisters.

Once we shift our focus from maternal incomes and related empowerment to maternal education, we find a mounting body of evidence suggesting a significant and positive effect of the latter on children’s nutrition. Studies have also found a greater effect of mother’s schooling on long-term nutrition of girls than that of boys (Sahn and Stifel 2002). The pivotal role seems to be played by awareness and access to information of women. Indeed, almost the entire effect of maternal education on child nutrition can be explained by the mother’s access to information (Thomas et al 1991).

The commentary has brought in the broad macro picture highlighting the prospects of making agriculture “propoor” and “pro-nutrition”, also mentioning that such prospects are conditional on “effective social behaviour change communication and mobilisation strategies to change demand, behaviours and consumption patterns”. On a similar note, Pinstrup-Anderson (2006) has observed that “the final nutrition effect of changes in agricultural research and policy will depend on a series of factors and relationships outside the control of agriculture”, including access to safe water, sanitation, healthcare and household decisionmaking. While the commentary has elaborately outlined the necessary steps to align the systems of governance and convergence across sectors so that the pathways between agriculture and nutrition may be explored, we re-emphasise the point that such initiatives from the supply-side would be scarcely suffi cient if the complexities of household preferences and decision-making are not taken into account.

Aligning targets across sectors with that end in focus would be the most challenging and perhaps the most rewarding exercise. Integrating agricultural policies with behaviour change initiatives such as UNICEF’s Dular Strategy in Bihar and Jharkhand and the positive deviance programme, “Keno Parbo Na” in Purulia district of West Bengal might bring about desirable results.


Gillespie, S and S Kadiyala (2011): Exploring the Agriculture-Nutrition Disconnect in India, 2020 Conference Brief 20, prepared for the IFPRI 2020 International Conference, “Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health”, 10-12 February, New Delhi.

Hazarika, G (2000): “Gender Differences in Children’s Nutrition and Access to Health Care in Pakistan”, The Journal of Development Studies, 37 (1): 73-92.

Jensen, R (2002): “Equal Treatment, Unequal Outcomes? Generating Gender Inequality Through Fertility Behaviour”, Working Paper, JFK School of Government, viewed on 4 March 2012 ( pdf ).

Kadiyala, S, P K Joshi, S Mahendra Dev, T Nanda Kumar and V Vyas (2012): “A Nutrition Secure India: Role of Agriculture”, Economic & Political Weekly, XLVII (8), 21-25.

Leon, M and S D Younger (2007): “Transfer Payments, Mother’s Income and Child Health in Ecuador”, The Journal of Development Studies, 43 (6): 1126-43.

Marjit, S (2011): “Conflicting Measures of Poverty and Inadequate Saving by the Poor – The Role of Status Driven Utility Function”, Discussion Papers Series 424, School of Economics, University of Queensland, Australia.

Pinstrup-Anderson, P (2006): “Agricultural Research and Policy to Achieve Nutrition Goals” in A de Janvry and R Kanbur (ed.), Poverty, Inequality and Development: Essays in Honour of Erik Thorbecke (USA: Springer), 353-70.

Sahn, D E and D C Stifel (2002): “Parental Preferences for Nutrition of Boys and Girls: Evidence from Africa”, The Journal of Development Studies, 39(1): 21-45.

Tarozzi, A (2008): “Growth Reference Charts and the Status of Indian Children”, Economics and Human Biology, 6(3), 455-68.

Thomas, D, J Strauss and M-H Henriques (1991): “How Does Mother’s Education Affect Child Height”, The Journal of Human Resources, 26(2): 183-211.

Thomas, D, D Contreras and E Frankenberg (2002): “Distribution of Power within the Household and Child Health”, viewed on 4 March 2012 (


January 28, 2012

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