Marc Van Ameringen and Pier Luigi Sigismondi: How Can We Improve The Lives of 2.5 Million Farmers and their Families?

By Marc Van Ameringen, Executive Director, GAIN and Pier Luigi Sigismondi, Chief Supply Chain Officer, Unilever

More than 90% of farms are run by an individual or a family and they produce about 80% of the world's food, yet many family farmers face ill health and low productivity as a result of poor diets. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) calculates that around half of the world’s hungry people are from smallholder farming communities

The agricultural sector is crucial to combatting malnutrition, but it is often those that depend on farming for their livelihoods that suffer the worst effects of malnutrition, with women and children bearing the highest health burden. Childhood stunting – when a child is unable to reach its full growth potential – is higher in rural areas than urban areas due to the lack of availability of nutritious foods, particularly during lean seasons.

Supply chains are an important way of reaching rural communities with improved nutrition. The agricultural system is already reaching farmers and workers in rural areas with a variety of agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers, training and market access programs. Perhaps most interesting is the prospect that these systems have for reaching people at scale and sustainably

Despite producing the majority of the world’s food, smallholder farmers and their families face some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. Investing in nutrition through supply chains improves the living conditions of farmers and their families, the impact of which is felt throughout entire communities.

A new agreement signed by GAIN and Unilever at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos aims to improve the lives of 2.5 million farmers and their families, by improving access to more diverse food groups. The programme will leverage Unilever’s global supply chain, with a specific focus on female farmers, pregnant women and young children. It will also contribute to improved nutrition through hand washing, based on Unilever’s successful Lifebuoy model.

The first programmes will be implemented in India to improve the nutrition and health of more than 20,000 gherkin producers and their families (100,000 people) in Unilever´s food business supply chain. Malnutrition is a severe emergency in India. One in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India. Forty three per cent of children under the age of 5 are moderately or severely underweight, while 20% are wasted.

A major focus of the programme is to facilitate higher production and consumption of nutritious foods in two ways:

1. Through household and community interventions: Farming families can create or expand their own home gardens with nutrient rich vegetables and fruit or nut trees. At a community level good nutrition can also be enhanced through building facilities to house livestock for additional sources of protein;

2. Focusing on the production system itself: These interventions could include planting nutrient rich trees and plants in between planting cycles or in buffer zones. Analysis will be carried out to investigate which crops are most suitable for intercropping without interfering with the soil structure or nutrient content of the soil.

The 2014 Global Nutrition Report found that investing in nutrition is a win-win situation with an enormous return on investment - for every $1 spent on nutrition at least $16 will be returned in economic benefits. The effects are inter-generational – well-nourished children are more able to reach their full cognitive and physical potential and to raise healthy families, helping to secure healthy future generations.

There is a sound business argument as well as a moral case for investing in delivering nutrition through agricultural supply chains. Working with our smallholder farmers to ensure that they and their families stay healthy through good nutrition and hygiene is important – not only does it help drive social and economic development but it also makes huge business sense.

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