Connecting productivity, nutrition, and health: a “farm-to-fork” approach
Technological interventions are helping small-scale farmers increase crop productivity and diversify local food production, and nutrition education is encouraging a shift in food consumption from energy-dense imported foods toward locally grown fresh produce.
The challenge: increasing local food production In the Caribbean, food production systems are based primarily on export crops; local capacity to grow food for local consumption is limited. People rely on highly processed imported foods that contribute to high rates of obesity. Improving local production capacity and linking it to local consumption are key to improved food security and nutrition in the region.
Boosting productivity through better water management
Improving the productivity of local vegetables and fruit for local consumption is an essential component of the farm-to-fork model. Small farmers are achieving increases in crop yield by adopting water management technologies to tackle seasonal variations in water availability, the main constraint to productivity in the Caribbean.
Drip irrigation is being used in experiments with vegetable crops, such as tomato, eggplant, carrot, pumpkin, beans, and watermelon. In this method, water drips directly onto the soil around plants according to need, thus conserving water.
“Farmers are learning more sophisticated tools to understand soil dynamics and implement efficient water management schemes beyond predictability of season-dependant floods and droughts, which is no longer reliable due to climate change,” says Dr. Leroy Phillip, lead investigator at McGill University.
Crop performance data from St. Kitts suggest that drip irrigation interventions have resulted in a two-fold increase in production for string beans, three-fold for watermelon, and 10-fold for pumpkin (Fig. 1).
In Guyana, crop yields increased by 34% for red beans, 27% for long green beans, and 8% for tomatoes (Table 1).
Nutrition and behavioural change
Reducing overweight and obesity rates among children and caregivers in both Trinidad and St. Kitts is an important challenge. However, a more surprising result of the baseline survey was that 39% of children surveyed in St. Kitts suffered from anemia, a condition directly related to a micronutrient deficiency.
Nutrition interventions, through modification of school lunch menus, have been implemented in St. Kitts and Trinidad. In St. Kitts, the lunches of 830 children now include a source of protein and supplementary portions of fruits and vegetables procured from farmers participating in the project. In Trinidad, the intervention includes menu modification and nutritional education and reaches more than 350 children five to nine years old.
The project team tests the impact of menu modification on the behaviour and nutritional status of the children. Preliminary findings reveal that students are enjoying the new lunch menus, especially the fruit content. In addition, meal consumption increases and food waste decreases when the children are supervised at lunchtime. Teachers have observed increased alertness in kids after lunch, related to the type of food being consumed.
Researchers have also found that nutrition education reinforces healthier eating habits, producing better results than the menu modification intervention alone. “A particular lesson demonstrated dicing fruits and making fruit kebabs. Children really enjoyed the hands-on experience and told the teacher they would make it at home,” recalls Dr. Isabella Granderson, a researcher from the University of West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago (Fig. 2).
Farm to fork: closing the loop
Farmers have an incentive to participate, as schools provide a market for their products, and children benefit from having more balanced and nutritious diets. In the longer term, health outcomes will improve because of better food quality and availability, and the two countries’ ability to address food security and health problems related to malnutrition and obesity will increase. Lessons from this project will be valuable in scaling up the model to other CARICOM countries.
Itena Pemberton, a farmer at the Stapleton site in St. Kitts, produces a diversity of crops including green beans. Last summer, she grew over 13,600 kg of watermelons — twice the national average for rain-dependant watermelon production. Another farmer, Spencer McLean, saw his pumpkin yield increase to 75% above the national average of 16,800 kg/ha after he adopted mulch and drip irrigation.
Canada: McGill University
Country: Guyana, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago
Funding: CA$5 million
Duration: March 2011 to August 2014
Renaud De Plaen, Senior Program Specialist, Ottawa, Canada (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Susan Robertson, Senior Program Officer, Ottawa, Canada (email@example.com).