Hungry farmers

Farmer nutrition for livelihood and productivity.

Cacao training needs to include more farmer nutrition-related curriculum to contribute to farmer health, productivity and livelihood.

Within the topic of health, issues of (mal)nutrition, water/sanitation and chemical use and access to health care have typically been the key topics which the research has revolved around.   Regarding food security and nutrition, the  Global Alliance of Improved Nutrition identified a direct relationship between farmer nutrition and direct performance capacity. When research cacao farming families, De Vries et al. (2012) (1)  found that when there was a 1% reduction in iron status (anaemia), this can lead to a 1% reduction in productivity. Even more alarming, this issue compounded over the lifetime, whereas adults who were undernourished as children can have a 15% lower cognitive capacity (2). 

Such direct research has been echoed in a 2018 multi-village research in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville of Papua New Guinea by Walton et al. (3) who demonstrated a clear link between the health of the farming household, crop productivity and relative wealth. 

Big ideas:

1. Healthier farmers tend to be more productive and have greater wealth 

2. Nutrition is a key issue for farmers

3. One Health is a good frame to view the complexities of nutrition and food security 

4. Role of crop diversity and intercropping

5. Climate change is increasingly impacting poor farmers food security 

5. What nutrition content could be within farmer training 

Understanding there is a link between health and the surroundings ‘outside the body’ is well documented by the terms ‘planetary health’, or ‘one health’ which bring a multidisciplinary view to observing a situation within the context that it exists. The concept of Planetary Health gained widespread attention in 2015 when The Lancet defined the concept as the wellbeing of human civilisations and the state of the natural systems which they depend (4). Within the same vein, the movement of ‘One Health’ is defined by interpreting the multidisciplinary relationship between climate change, habitat destruction, food insecurity, wealth inequality, crop challenges, species extinction, and zoonosis (5)

Here is a video by The Lancet editor-in-chief, Richard Horton explaining the concept.

The striking aspect of farmer nutrition in an agricultural setting is that it makes little sense. That those who sew and harvest food for the world, are food insecure themselves. Additionally, that the impact of malnutrition is so influential for productivity and livelihood makes it a reason for priority.

While the research is still new and unfolding, there is not much volume nor much agreement on the fundamentals. For example, regarding crop diversity, there are some schools of thought which suggest farmers who plant diverse food crops within their farm do better than those who don’t. 

During 2018, there was two large-scale research conducted in the world’s largest cacao growing region, and the world’s smallest growing area; both yielding conflicting evidence regarding the role of crop diversity. 

In West Africa, Bymolt et al. found no convincing evidence of diversified crop strategy to reduce food insecurity (6).  In the Autonomous region of Bougainville, Walton et al. (3) found the opposite, especially when the diversification of farming involved animals, such as goats, were included. This comparison demonstrates the reason to have One-Health type approach that single-indicators, such as nutrition, are not sufficient to observe in isolation; that the contributing factors are highly complex and interdependent. Within the nutrition topic, there are aspects such as volume of food, access to food, affordability of food sources and diversity of products that can be cooked. Let alone, dental and digestive health,  to crunch and absorb the goodness within. Also, that there are changing climatic conditions which directly influence crop availability and yield. There is already some evidence regarding the changing of climatic conditions and reduction in food: 

  • Lobell et al. (2008) (7) who looked at climate adaption needs for future security, up to 2030 
  • Peri (2017)(8) who investigated climate variability and the volatility of international maize and soybean prices
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014) (9) who drew the big picture 

Relating to the situation that cacao farmers are in, the situation is exceptionally difficult for farmers who already experience a life in poverty:

  • Mueller et al. (2011) (10) who wrote about climate change risks for African-based agriculture
  • Wheeler et al. (2013)  (11) reported on the climate change impacts on global food security

Using the lens of One Health helps us interpret the findings from the above mentioned Bymolt et al. (6) and Walton et al. (3) studies to start to look at what other factors that crop diversity can bring to nutrition, as in contributing to the revenue-generating activity of the family, or alternatively, what opportunities smaller ideas like a home vegetable garden could bring as an alternative. Both being contributions to the issue of nutrition for health, however with various externalities in focus. Opportunity cost thinking leads us to believe that choosing one avenue over another will mean the deliberate decision of where to allocate precious funds and time to, and the costs this will bring such as time for seed sourcing, pest control, crop maintenance and harvest of diverse crops (12) (13). While potentially bringing in greater food security and possibly alternate revenue streams, it directly impacts profit and loss within the household as it relates to resource allocation. 

It is a decision you and I know ourselves too; do I buy my food or grow it? Where is my time and cash best spent?

Food security and home nutrition are direct contributions to farmer health. In turn, healthier farmers have greater productivity and the potential to earn better. It should be a priority that attention is invested at this nexus, and considered in developing cacao farmer training and curriculum. Further research regarding the multifactorial impacts of farmer health on productivity and livelihood is required. For now, the immediate influence for cacao farmer training should be to include more health-related content, such as:

What are nutrient-dense foods, and what different food groups exist? What good nutrition looks like in the region and what are symptoms and signs of lacking. Training about how a poor diet can affect a person and thus their goals, and also the key aspect of how a child’s good growth and development relies on good nutrition. Going through food cleanliness and safety, and food contamination are important skills such as sharing recipes and cooking methods among peers. 

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Farmer nutrition


1. De Vries KM, B., Van Dorp, M., Weiligmann, B. Increasing cocoa productivity through improved nutrition – A call to action, Concept Brief. Netherlands: Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) Centre for Development Innovation Wageningen University & Research Centre; 2012.

2. De Vries K, McClafferty,, B., Van Dorp, M., Weiligmann, B. Increasing coffee productivity through improved nutrition. A call to action. Netherlands: Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) Centre for Development Innovation Wageningen University & Research Centre; 2013.

3. Walton M, Guest, D., Vinning, G., Hill-Cawthorne, G., Black, K., Betitis, T., Totavun, C., Butubu, J., Hall, J., Saul-Maora, J. Case study 1: Improving the livelihood of farmers in Bougainville. In: Walton M, editor. One Planet, One Health. Sydney: Sydney University Press. ; 2019. p. 127-41.

4. Whitmee S, Haines A, Beyrer C, Boltz F, Capon AG, de Souza Dias BF, et al. Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on planetary health. Lancet. 2015;386(10007):1973-2028.

5. Walton M. One planet, one health / edited by Merrilyn Walton. Walton M, editor. Sydney: Sydney University Press; 2019.

6. Bymolt R, Laven, A., Tyszler, M. . Demystifying the cocoa sector in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Holland: The Royal Tropical Institute (KIT); 2018.

7. Lobell DB, Burke MB, Tebaldi C, Mastrandrea MD, Falcon WP, Naylor RL. Prioritizing climate change adaptation needs for food security in 2030. Science (New York, NY). 2008;319(5863):607-10.

8. Peri M. Climate variability and the volatility of global maize and soybean prices. Food Security. 2017;9(4):673-83.

9. IPCC. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Geneva: IPCC; 2014.

10. Mueller C, Cramer W, Hare W, Lotze-Campen H. Climate change risks for African agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 2011;108(11):4313-5.

11. Wheeler T, Von Braun J. Climate change impacts on global food security. Science (New York, NY). 2013;341(6145):508-13.

12. Baliki G, Brück T, Schreinemachers P, Uddin MN. Long-term behavioural impact of an integrated home garden intervention: evidence from Bangladesh. Food Security. 2019;11(6):1217-30.

13. Yates J, Manohar S, Bhandari S, Gersten Z, Kalamatianou S, Saleh A. Building bridges and deconstructing pathways in agriculture, nutrition and health. Food Security. 2018;10(3):689-700.