Connecting productivity, nutrition, and health: a “farm-to-fork” approach

September 20, 2013
IDRC
Obesity rates are on the rise in the Caribbean, in large part because of the limited attention Caribbean countries have paid to local food production. They have relied instead on economic development through exports of plantation crops. As a result, there is a high dependence on imports of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods. This project is testing a “farm-to-fork” approach that links agriculture to health and nutrition to help address the challenges of food security in Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Lucia.

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).

 
Improvements have occurred not only in productivity of a particular crop, but also in diversity, as farmers are now producing crops they couldn’t grow before because of lack of rain during the dry season. With the use of the technology package, which includes drip irrigation, fertigation (application of fertilizers to the water), and plastic mulch to minimize evaporation of soil moisture, farmers have reduced water use by 25% without sacrificing yield.
 
To address the challenges of high temperatures and humidity to open-field cultivation, the project team is testing protective mechanisms, such as various greenhouse structures, and crop varieties that adapt well to the climatic conditions. Studies conducted with tomatoes and sweet peppers grown in greenhouses in Trinidad and St. Kitts and using local materials, such as coconut coir and compost, are showing promising results. Crops grown on coconut coir had the best performance, producing the highest yields and showing greatest resistance to pests and diseases.
 
The project shows that, using appropriate techniques, small-scale farmers can increase yield and produce enough food to respond to the needs of local markets. Higher crop productivity and diversity results in the availability of produce year-round as well as income growth (see box).
Increasing protein intake

Because animal protein is an integral part of a diverse diet, the project promotes forage-based sustainable production of small ruminants in the CARICOM, which improves production while conserving the soil. Trials conducted with five farmers on 2 ha of land produced more than 110 t of forage, sufficient to feed 70 animals.

The project has already increased the area (five times) and doubled the number of farmers involved in the process. In St. Kitts, forage conservation has been improved by adapting drum silage technology, which stores excess forage produced during the rainy season to feed small ruminants during the dry season. However, the marginal nutritional contribution of the silage remains to be determined.

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).

Nutrition education is also important at home, as focus-group assessments of caregivers revealed gaps in nutrition knowledge and unhealthy nutritional habits. The project team aims to identify the determinants of food choices to understand the reasons for obesity and overweight. With input from focus groups, it has developed a series of lessons, which include healthy eating, food purchasing and selection criteria, and food preparation skills to reduce fat and sodium and increase fibre. Training will begin in mid-2013.

Farm to fork: closing the loop

The project is testing the “farm-to-fork model” of linking agriculture with health and nutrition in St Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago. Small farmers whose crop production has increased with technology innovation are supplying produce for nutritional interventions in schools.

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.

PROJECT DETAILS
Title: From farm to fork: improving nutrition in the Caribbean
Lead researchers
Dr. Isabella Francis-Granderson, University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago
Dr. Leroy Phillip, McGill University, Canada

Partners
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

For more information on this project, contact:
Renaud De Plaen, Senior Program Specialist, Ottawa, Canada (rdeplaen@idrc.ca) or Susan Robertson, Senior Program Officer, Ottawa, Canada (srobertson@idrc.ca).