Editorial: in praise of bundling
One of the advantages of outsourcing to a company rather than a freelance is what business people call bundling – the company’s ability to combine services instead of offering just one. Clients save transaction costs by relating to a single supplier, who takes on the project management role.
Digital editions illustrate this well. We’re now able to create outputs for mobile devices as a low-cost add-on to the development of a conventional pdf. After introducing our digital guru, Paul Philpot, we begin this issue by taking you on a guided tour of the formats and platforms we can offer. Keep this handy, to inform the right choice for you.
When we research and write at the front end of a production project – another example of bundling – we can add tremendous value to our clients’ work by combining fresh, incisive writing with attractive design. This issue features three projects of this kind: a suite of materials on the push–pull system in East Africa; an account of a REDD+ project in Indonesia; and the portrait of an alliance to cure blindness in eight African countries. All three tell compelling R&D stories, blending the human and the technical in classic Green Ink style. And they look great too.
Even if we don’t write, we can still save you transaction costs and add value when we combine editing with other tasks in the production process – translation, design/layout and electronic or print production. In this issue we feature an interesting analysis of collaboration in one of the new CGIAR research programmes, a report that sheds new light on the meaning and role of agroecology, a set of profiles of eight prize-winning mHealth projects, a new-look annual report from the International Centre for development oriented Research in Agriculture, and a set of conference papers on resilience, which we worked on for the British Red Cross. In all of these projects we bundled tasks – and the clients’ messages stand out the clearer for it.
Two strategic assignments complete the project line-up. One was a website usability study conducted for the Global Water Partnership; the other involved a range of advisory and creative roles for the new West African Livestock Innovation Centre.
In September, I and three colleagues attended CGIAR’s 2013 Science Forum on agriculture, nutrition and health. This was an excellent conference – well organized and with a high standard of presentations and discussions on an important but neglected topic. It was also a surprising conference – so much so that I’ve written an opinion piece on the insights I gained from it. I should emphasize that these are my own thoughts, not an official output from the meeting.
Kind passers by often come to the rescue of photographers who’d like to be in the picture too. In October a stranger took this photo of three of us in Montreal, where Christel and I met our Canadian science writer on her home territory.
We end this issue with our usual production tip, which sings the praises of landscape formats.
To all our readers, thank you for your custom during the year, if you have used us; if you haven’t, please think of sending us a big bundle of things to do in 2014. Meanwhile, Christmas and New Year greetings from all of us at Green Ink.
Meet Paul Philpot, digital magician
I studied audio-visual arts with a specialism in photography, with the early intent of becoming a reportage photographer. After developing my initial portfolio in India and Nepal, I joined Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in 1996 and was offered a placement in Nigeria at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). This was my first experience of agricultural research for development – an experience that led me away from photography and into the broader field of publishing.
While at IITA I picked up HTML and coded their first ever website – my first hands-on experience of the digital publishing revolution. As my coding experience grew, in tandem with my design skills, I recognized the possibilities that multimedia publishing could bring in terms of delivering increasingly sophisticated content to a wider audience. From the birth of interactive CD-ROMs 20 years ago through to the recent growth of information-rich iPad apps, the basics of the model haven’t changed much, but its applications have: we now have increased internet bandwidth along with additional processing power, while the explosion of portable devices has brought access to a far wider range of people and hence huge diversity in demand.
When I joined Green Ink in 2004, the concept of Web 2.0 was just gaining traction. I developed a user-friendly content management system to enable our clients to publish websites online themselves, without needing to bring in the specialists. At this time, content management systems were cumbersome and, unless you used them daily, difficult to master. But technology quickly moved on and, with the advent of WordPress, DIY website creation went mainstream.
The next challenge that came along was publishing our clients’ outputs online in a more versatile way than simply as PDFs. My technical and design skills merged perfectly to enable me to create our first online only annual report, for the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in 2008. More recently, I’ve been devising cost-effective approaches to publishing electronically on mobile platforms – adapting our clients’ work for eReaders, tablets and smartphones. With good forward planning and careful design, we can include additional interactive elements without the high costs usually associated with this.
I do this all from my home in Suffolk, in the UK, where I live with my wife and daughter. The nearby Suffolk coastline has inspired me to pick up my camera again over the past year, with some pleasing results (well, I like them anyway).
– Paul Philpot
Digital editions: making the right choices
“Can you make me a digital edition?”, a client asks. “Yes certainly”, we say, “what exactly do you need?” Pause. “Erm…”
Many of our clients tell us they’re interested in readability on mobile devices, but few understand the technology well enough to be sure they can make the right choices. So here’s a run-down of the different formats and platforms – with our thoughts on what to go for under different circumstances.
Before we start, there’s good news and bad. The good news is that a digital edition can be a low-cost add-on to the development of a conventional pdf. Provided we know in advance that it’s needed, we can build the necessary flexibility into the design and create an e-version at little extra charge. The bad news is that this isn’t always the case: the more sophisticated platforms, in particular, force the designer to start afresh. That’s extra work – sometimes a lot of extra work – so it’s more expensive.
The main formats we can offer are:
- EPUB. This is the simplest and cheapest format; it’s also pretty versatile, in the sense that a wide range of platforms can support it. It’s highly suitable for simple text-only layouts, less so for more complex ones involving multiple columns, pull-out quotes and “heavy” graphics – though simple photos can be accommodated. Platforms: Desktop/laptop, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone, Android phones and tablets using EPUB-reading software, Windows Phone 8 using EPUB-reading software, Nook and other e-readers.
- EPUB 3. This is an excellent choice in terms of the trade-off between cost and sophistication. It can handle a wider range of designs and offers more control over how the layout appears. Interactive materials, such as videos, animated charts, swipe-able galleries and slideshows, can be incorporated, replacing single photos or static charts. This requires more time and so incurs higher costs than the first option, but it’s still good value for money. There’s a small licence fee to pay for each product. Platforms: Desktop/laptop, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone, Android phones and tablets using EPUB-reading software, Windows Phone 8 using EPUB-reading software.
- Mobi. A ‘tweaked’ EPUB format specifically for use on the Amazon Kindle. The conversion requires a further production process involving adjustments to formatting. Platform: Amazon Kindle only, so not very versatile.
- iBooks. Apple’s alternative to the EPUB format. Needs laying out specifically for this format, so cannot be created from a conventional pdf. The conversion creates swipe-able, fixed layout documents and multimedia elements can be included. Incorporating these materials further increases costs, already relatively high because of the need for de novo layout. Platforms: Mac desktop/laptop, Apple iPhone, iPad.
- EPUB3 App. A tablet- and smartphone-based app, derived from EPUB3. This is more expensive than EPUB3 because of conversion fees, but allows easier delivery (via the relevant appstore) and is less cumbersome to use without EPUB-reading software. Platforms: Apple and Android phones and tablets.
- Apple App. Produces a magazine-style swipe-able document with multimedia elements included. Content can be highly interactive, but design and layout must be created from scratch and there is a license fee, so this is currently the most costly option (although the licence fee has recently been reduced). Platform: Apple iPad only, so not very versatile.
Apple or Android eBookshelves can be used to form collections of digital editions. This is a suitable option for clients publishing series or titles that are closely related in subject matter. Additions to the collection can be automatically downloaded.
A recent innovation is the Newsreader, which allows quick and easy access to headlines and articles from a given agency. This could also be useful for some of our clients, for creating a self-updating newsletter, for example. The UN Newsreader is a good model; take a look at this.
Digital editions add value over conventional pdfs in two main ways. First, they broaden readership. This can be a life-saver, literally: for health workers in remote rural areas, mobile phones are often the only way of accessing vital information for preventing and treating malnutrition and disease (see Health at their fingertips). And there’s a growing number of similar applications for food producers, traders and others in areas such as weather forecasting, diagnostics and marketing. Second, the more sophisticated digital platforms can incorporate greatly increased interactivity, giving users access to new ways of gaining knowledge and taking decisions. Both these advantages present exciting opportunities, though it’s worth remembering that not all publications will be suitable for turning into a digital edition.
Look at some examples we’ve recently created for our clients. And if you’d like to find out more, contact Paul Philpot for a free initial consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Push–pull goes climate-smart
Push–pull is an intercropping system that uses Napier grass and desmodium as companion crops to control two damaging pests of cereal crops – stemborer and striga. The system, which also provides fodder for livestock, is now firmly established in western Kenya and has gained a foothold in parts of Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. By June 2013, there were nearly 70,000 adopters.
Now researchers have adapted the system for drier areas and times. New research prompted by long dry spells in recent growing seasons has led to the testing and dissemination of two new drought-tolerant companion crops, greenleaf desmodium and Brachiaria. This more resilient version of push–pull still controls striga and stemborer, raising cereal yields, but the greenleaf desmodium fixes more atmospheric nitrogen and produces more fodder than its predecessor. Climate-smart push–pull seems to be catching on fast, with around 10,000 farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania already using it and the numbers expected to rise to 50,000 in 2014.
This timely and relevant adaptation of what is arguably Africa’s most promising new farming system is described in an 8-page brief published by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), which pioneered the development of push–pull in partnership with the UK’s Rothamsted Research back in the 1990s. The brief is one of a suite of new materials – a main report and five briefs – describing what the system means to different user groups, how its researchers are shaping the next generation of scientists, and the part played by its principal architect, Dr Zeyaur Khan, in developing the system with colleagues and farmers.
The main report has powerful testimony from 14 adopting farmers. All of them are enjoying greatly increased food security and higher incomes, but it is the diverse stories of what each has done with the extra cash that this reviewer found most interesting and, in one case, inspiring. Step forward Samuel Sana, who has used his increased prosperity to build a school for orphaned children on his land.
Two of the other briefs describe the benefits of push–pull for women and disabled farmers. For women farmers, traditionally responsible for hand-digging and weeding, the system reduces labour as well as bringing increased income and food security. Indirect outcomes include better education for girls and young women, the building of women’s knowledge and skills, and the enhancement of women’s leadership capacity. To disabled farmers, push–pull can offer a route out of poverty and hunger and into independent livelihoods. We meet the Maseno Depot Disabled Group (motto “Disability is not Inability!”), whose members recall a field day with an icipe technician as a turning point in the group’s fortunes.
To create the materials, Green Ink’s Karen Brock spent three weeks in the field with a camera and a notebook – and dedicated icipe field technicians Aloice Ndiege and Dickens Nyagol for support, company and a wealth of expert information. Writing, editing, design and layout were completed in the UK and printing in India.
A REDD+ fix for Kalimantan
The continuing lack of a global climate treaty to replace Kyoto means there is still no formal mechanism or money for REDD+, the new UN instrument for reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. But that hasn’t stopped donor and development agencies from trying out the idea.
Of the many REDD+ initiatives that have flourished around the tropics over the past few years, one of the most exciting is the Kalimantan Forests and Climate Partnership (KFCP). A flagship project of the Indonesia–Australia Forest Carbon Partnership (IAFCP), KFCP is charged with rehabilitating an environment laid waste by one of the world’s most spectacular development disasters – the Mega-Rice Project of Central Kalimantan. Launched during the Suharto regime, this large-scale project cleared a vast tract of forest and installed canals that drained thousands of hectares of peatland in preparation for irrigated rice production by farmers resettled from more crowded parts of the archipelago. A lot of carbon went up in smoke, associated not just with the controlled burning used to clear land but also with the catastrophic wild fires that often took hold on dried out peat domes. Besides contributing to climate change, the pall of smoke that hung for weeks at a time over large areas of Southeast Asia damaged human health and disrupted the regional economy on a massive scale.
The first large-scale REDD+ demo activity in Indonesia and the largest anywhere on tropical peatlands, KFCP is attacking its complex and challenging task on multiple fronts. Under REDD+, communities must be able to demonstrate emissions saved if they are to receive cash and development aid, so an early objective is to develop methods and procedures for estimating emissions from peat swamp forests so as to establish a baseline for assessing improvements. Practical interventions at community level take place under individual village agreements designed to ensure maximum participation, especially by women and other marginalized groups, and the alignment of village development goals with the need to reduce emissions. Besides instilling the more careful use of fire for clearing land, preventing wild fires is the major practical conservation objective. The scientists have designed a canal blocking system that, if implemented, will raise the water table and re-soak the peat. Villagers have re-established forest cover by planting trees or encouraging natural regeneration. Over 30 nurseries are now operating under community management and more than 2.5 million seedlings have been raised and planted in degraded areas. The area’s high poverty levels are being tackled by introducing high-quality rubber seedlings, fishponds and agroforestry to households, usually via farmer field schools. In theory at least, improving agricultural livelihoods further decreases the pressure on natural forest from logging and encroachment.
You can read all about this work in two new publications available from KFCP: a fact-sheet and a longer brochure, both titled Learning by Doing. Green Ink’s Ruth Raymond wrote both products after travelling to Kalimantan to gather raw material; design and layout were completed in the UK. Write to James Maiden (email@example.com) for copies.
Seeing the light
Four-year-old Anastasia Sompougoudou runs around and plays like other girls of her age. To her mother, this normal behaviour seems miraculous: Anastasia was born blind, with cataracts in both eyes.
Anastasia’s sight was restored through a simple 15-minute operation conducted by a medical team from the Alliance to Fight Medical Blindness, a South–South partnership organized and funded by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB). Around 80% of the world’s nearly 300 million visually impaired people have treatable conditions, but high costs and scarce medical skills and equipment mean that, in Africa, very few actually receive treatment.
Launched in 2008, the Alliance has so far restored the sight of around 40,000 people in a swathe of countries across West and East Africa. Those with double cataracts, like Anastasia, are given priority. And the emphasis falls mainly on rural areas, where needs are greatest. Rural people with impaired sight cannot easily afford to travel to the city and often face great dangers when attempting to do so.
As well as radically improving the lives of vulnerable people, the Alliance strengthens capacity. Hands-on training is offered during treatment campaigns and grants are provided to enable young ophthalmologists to study abroad in training centres and teaching hospitals.
This outstanding development work needed publicizing. In late 2012 IDB invited Green Ink to send a writer to Burkina Faso to visit beneficiaries and view medical teams in action. Working closely with a photographer, our Erin O’Connell captured their stories before returning home to write them up. Our editors and graphic designers pitched in to complete the job, which was printed to a high standard in India. The result is an attractive brochure, available online as a flipbook. Both products should enable the Alliance to raise the funds needed to expand its work.
“I will use only one adjective to qualify the final product: ‘SUPERB’.”
– Riad Ragueb, Capacity Development Department,
Islamic Development Bank
Are the CGIAR reforms working?
A more coherent research system was a chief aim of the recently concluded CGIAR reform process. A new set of programmes – the CGIAR research programmes or CRPs – was put in place to link activities across the system’s centres and with a broader range of partners, so as to increase synergy and impact.
Are the CRPs doing their job? One of them decided to find out. In a study conducted with the CGIAR’s Institutional Learning and Change (ILAC) initiative, the Roots, Tubers and Bananas CRP invited its researchers to complete an online survey listing formal and informal collaborations over the past year, then mapped and analysed the results.
The analysis revealed a “weakly connected set of actors with few reciprocal collaborations”, says a report on the study co-published by the RTB CRP and ILAC. When it was formed the CRP was little more than an umbrella organization for pre-existing centre activities that had no unifying strategy. However, the new programme’s design process forced researchers to interact intensively and thus created opportunities to form new partnerships. Although a coherent programme has not yet evolved, the new CRP is inducing change and there are more interactions among researchers than there used to be.
Another reason for the relatively low level of collaboration observed is the size of the programme’s network, says the report. In large networks, the potential for links exceeds the capacity for initiating and maintaining collaboration.
Informal links emerged as important to researchers, especially at senior levels. Researchers’ preferences thus run counter to the prevailing trend towards ever greater external control of research aims and outputs and ever more accountability through formal contracts and reviews. The CRP should explore the balance between informality and accountability in promoting creative research, the report argues.
Some 80% of collaborations involved other researchers and there were relatively few partnerships with other kinds of actor, such as NGOs. This does not necessarily mean that the potential for impact is reduced, although previous research has shown that researchers who interact with a diverse set of actors are likely to be more productive and creative than those who talk only to other researchers.
Time will tell whether the CGIAR reform process is working. The survey should be repeated to find out how this particular CRP evolves, the report concludes. This kind of study could also be conducted for other CRPs, allowing comparisons to be made and an overall picture to emerge.
Edited and designed by Green Ink, the report and an accompanying brief can be downloaded from ILAC’s website.
“Green Ink did a very nice job.”
– Graham Thiele, Director, CGIAR Research Program on Roots,
Tubers and Bananas
Agroecology: different things to different people
What does agroecology mean? Well, it depends who you ask. Take a look at the table on page 3 of this report and you’ll see six different definitions – and that’s just a selection!
As an academic discipline, agroecology emerged over a century ago. Then, as now, it meant the definition, classification and study of agricultural systems from an ecological and socio-economic perspective. But the term has since undergone a progressive shift from theory into practice, broadly associated with the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agricultural and food systems.
A strong community of practitioners has developed over the past 30 years and particularly since 2009, when the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development advocated the use of agroecology to underpin sustainability. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has also endorsed agroecology as a viable approach to food security.
There’s increasing evidence it works. High-performing agroecological management practices and systems have been reported in fields as diverse as aquaculture, agroforestry, crop production and livestock production. Conservation agriculture is one of the best known examples, delivering numerous environmental benefits in addition to impressive gains in crop yields.
According to the UN rapporteur, scaling up agroecological approaches remains a formidable challenge. Barriers to rapid and widespread adoption include question marks over their economic superiority to industrial systems, the entrenched interests of agribusiness, and neoliberal approaches to trade and the global economy.
You can read more about all this in Mainstreaming Agroecology: Implications for Food and Farming Systems, co-published recently by Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology and Food Security and Garden Organic. Edited and designed by Green Ink, the report is topped and tailed by a Foreword by HRH the Prince of Wales and an agenda for change to support wider use. The attractive landscape format makes for an inviting read (see our production tip).
Health at their fingertips
Speed is of the essence when diagnosing and treating babies born with HIV. The earlier positive infants begin treatment with antiretrovirals, the better their chances of survival.
In Nigeria, an imaginative public–private partnership has developed a new technology, SMS printers, that dramatically reduces the time needed to send test results from labs back to the health centres where blood samples are taken. The project uses mobile SMS technology and small battery-operated printers to transmit and print out test results without recourse to computers or even the Internet, let alone the national postal service. Once scaled up, the project could save the lives of many of the 70,000 or more infants born HIV-positive every year in Nigeria.
This project is one of eight winners of the first round of a three-year catalytic grant competition designed to aid the scaling up of maternal, newborn and child mobile health (mHealth) technologies in the developing world. The competition is managed by the mHealth Alliance, with support from the United Nations Innovation Working Group (IWG) and funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). Research and technical support are provided by the Reproductive Health and Research Department of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The eight winners illustrate the diversity of health challenges that can now be tackled using mobile phone technology. These range from maintaining stocks of antimalarials at remote health centres, through ensuring broader uptake of vaccines for infants, to keeping pregnant women healthy and preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Green Ink is delighted to have been invited to edit, design and produce a set of profiles describing the first-round winners. We’re currently working on a second set, on the Round 2 winners.
“The profiles look fantastic. We are thrilled with the way they have come out. You have a great team over there.”
– Reid Miller, Consultant,
Department of Reproductive Health and Research, WHO
Moving with the times:
ICRA’s annual report
The newly published annual report of the International Centre for development oriented Research in Agriculture (ICRA), Building Skills, Changing Outlooks, is a departure from ICRA’s lengthy and detailed reports of previous years.
Under the leadership of new director Richard Hawkins, and with guidance from Green Ink’s strategic team, ICRA opted for a slimmed down report with a fresh new look and format. Designed to serve primarily as a promotional tool for prospective clients, collaborators and funders, the report focuses on how ICRA’s approach to capacity strengthening in agricultural research, education systems and agribusiness is addressing local and global challenges of food production and supply.
ICRA’s strength lies in the positive impact of its work on people: individuals, organizations, and the diverse communities that make up the innovation systems that drive agricultural research for development. This year’s report features the personal stories of four of ICRA’s growing alumni community, who tell how their careers and organizations have benefited as a result of the skills and knowledge they gained through the training ICRA gave them.
British Red Cross unpacks resilience
Last spring, at the University of London, the British Red Cross (BRC) held its first-ever national conference on resilience. Green Ink was asked to edit and produce a special book-length collection of conference papers.
Resilience – the ability to withstand or recover from shocks such as natural disasters or economic collapse – is a fundamental concept in the humanitarian world. It has just been cruelly thrown into relief in the Philippines, a country widely thought of as well prepared for disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, where the resilience of, especially, coastal communities has been shown to be finite.
The UK too faces what looks like increased frequency of ‘extreme-weather events’, as the climate specialists call them – floods, heat-waves and, in recent years, savagely cold winters. One of the papers we processed and laid out for the BRC centred on a special emergency-response model pioneered in Cumbria – described as ‘a British Red Cross volunteer-driven initiative which has been three years in development’.
“For the Red Cross, the conference… provided a timely opportunity to take key
messages forward into our next corporate strategy,” writes Alison
McNulty, BRC’s Head of Research, Evaluation and Impact, in her Foreword to
“It looks really good!” was the final verdict on our product from Britcross, who also complimented Green Ink on a ‘quick turnaround’ of the raw material that came in from the various authors. A multimedia area of the BRC website now contains video clips from the conference, a Flickr photogallery, a delegates’ handbook, and the Conference Papers.
Toolbox on the move
The Global Water Partnership’s ToolBox on integrated water resources management was launched in 2000 as a stand-alone website. Earlier this year GWP asked Green Ink to help them decide how best to integrate the toolbox into their main website and how to make it more interactive and responsive to users’ needs.
To complement GWP’s quantitative survey of toolbox users, we conducted a qualitative usability analysis to identify users’ content needs and navigation preferences. We asked GWP to identify a small user group with various degrees of familiarity with the online toolbox and with GWP in general, and different levels of Internet skills and connectivity. Participants then underwent a 30-minute usability test of the online toolbox, which we recorded using screen-sharing software. They were also asked for feedback on the new GWP main website. We then reviewed similar resources developed by other organizations to determine the tools that best suited GWP’s target audience and fitted with its main website. Our detailed final report was designed to include screenshots and summaries of our recommendations that serve as stand-alone tools for discussion.
We can’t share the report with you, because it’s confidential. But we can tell you that the redesigned ToolBox has now migrated to the main GWP website and incorporates most of our recommendations. Visit www.gwp.org/en/ToolBox to see for yourself.
“I want to convey how impressed we are with the comprehensive
and interesting report you have produced for us. The evaluation interviews gave pertinent insights to how the website can be improved, and the outline as well as the annexes made the report easy to grasp and understand.”
– Helene Komlos Grill, Communications Officer, GWP
Goodbye ITC, hello WALIC
The International Trypanotolerance Centre is reinventing itself. In mid-2014, some 30 years after it was founded, it’s to become the West African Livestock Innovation Centre.
ITC was set up in the mid-1980s to improve the productivity and use of three indigenous livestock breeds – N’Dama cattle and Djallonke sheep and goats – that could be raised in five countries of West Africa infested with trypanosome-transmitting tsetse flies. In 2012 the centre undertook a participatory consultation with its stakeholders and partners, leading to a 10-year strategic plan centred on the concept of WALIC.
The name change indicates some exciting new directions. WALIC will take on a broader focus, including other endemic West African breeds, and a wider geographic coverage – any member country of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The new centre will also adopt what it calls a “business unusual approach”, meaning it will switch from an outdated linear model of technology transfer to an innovation systems model that takes the whole value chain into account. This is reflected in new vision and mission statements.
WALIC will focus on four strategic themes: genetic improvement, conservation and enhanced use of West African ruminant livestock; capacity development along the value chain; knowledge management; and advocacy and partnership brokerage.
You can find out more about WALIC by clicking here. We’d like to wish the new centre good luck. Our part in its gestation has been to advise it on its communication strategy, to design its new logo and brand, to edit and design its strategic plan and to develop a brochure for fund raising.
“Thanks for a job well done.”
– Ola Smith, Technical Adviser, ITC
Agriculture and nutrition: simple it isn’t
It sounds like a no-brainer. Increase agricultural production, and you’re sure to improve nutrition among poor food producers and consumers, right?
Wrong. A host of factors make the links between agriculture and nutrition a lot more complex than many professionals in both sectors have assumed. This emerged strongly at the CGIAR Science Forum 2013, held in Bonn last September. The meeting marked the fact that CGIAR has at last brought nutrition in from the cold, affording it a place in its mandate for the first time in its 42-year history. Its new programme on agriculture and nutrition needed ideas on what it should be doing.
The answer is plenty. For participants from both camps, the forum revealed an embarrassing lack of evidence on what works and what doesn’t.
Case not proven
Take agriculture first. At the macro level, the link between growth in agricultural GDP and decline of stunting, one of the main indicators of malnutrition, is surprisingly weak. At the micro level too, there is little evidence that agricultural interventions positively affect the nutritional status of mothers and children in food-producing households.
The evidence from the nutrition sector is scarcely more reassuring. Despite some creative uses of ICTs (see Health at their fingertips), coverage rates for many of 10 proven nutritional interventions remain poor. And even when interventions reach 90% of target populations, stunting is reduced by only 20%.
In both sectors, many of the problems over evidence can be laid at the doors of poor research design and implementation. Small sample sizes and a lack of analytical rigour have rendered many surveys and trials inconclusive. Too many agricultural impact studies focus on yield gains and economic effects only, without following through to nutrition and health outcomes. And in the drive to secure funding, the champions of new technology often favour hype over hard data. “We need less talk of potential impact, more demonstration of actual impact,” said one participant.
Metrics, benchmarks and timelines present further problems, particularly in the nutrition and health sectors. Stunting is a good indicator of chronic malnutrition, but it does not say anything about the causes, which may be particularly difficult to detect where micronutrient deficiencies are involved. Malnutrition varies greatly over time, especially before and after harvest and between good and bad years, so the season or year of baseline data collection will greatly affect the difference apparent from a given intervention. Practitioners in both sectors should beware of stopping an intervention that seems not to work in the short term, as the impact could materialize decades down the line, long after the typical project cycle of 3–4 years has ended.
On top of these considerations, the classic impact pathway conundrum casts doubt on many trial results: are observed differences due to the intervention alone or are other factors involved?
Which levers to pull?
Despite the lack of evidence, agriculture offers, in theory at least, three main technical routes to better nutrition in poor households: increasing the quantity of food produced, improving the quality of individual foods, and diversifying the diet. Cash income, another important determinant, interacts with all three.
With 9 billion people to feed by 2050, it is still vital to increase food quantity by raising and stabilizing crop yields, as this should at least contain prices if not drive them down. Research has traditionally focused largely on cereals, with fewer resources devoted to other commodities, especially fruits and vegetables but also legumes. The balance has gradually shifted since the glory days of the Green Revolution, a trend that needs to continue.
The main agricultural research approach used to improve food quality is biofortification – the genetic enhancement of staple food crops with key micronutrients. This approach has had its critics, but where rural families eat just one meal a day and have no land, money or time to diversity their diets, it offers a lot of promise. The jury is still out on whether biofortification will work: it’s looking good, with genes for the expression of key micronutrients successfully transferred into high-yielding backgrounds for a range of major food crops; but will farmers adopt the new varieties and will consumers buy and eat them?
Dietary diversification is arguably at once the most promising avenue for improving nutrition and the one most fraught with difficulty. Only two groups of commodities – livestock products and crops containing high levels of beta-carotene – show clear evidence of effectiveness when introduced into diets. The trouble is that improving individual dietary components may have adverse effects on the overall diet. In one case presented at the forum, the introduction of a biofortified staple food displaced crops with a wider range of micronutrients. Targeting is crucial here (see box).
Dietary diversification: a trap for the unwary!
Yellow cassava provides a classic illustration of just how complex is the task of improving nutrition.
Cassava is a staple food for 70 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia. Yellow varieties rich in beta-carotene are found in the Amazon and have been introduced to Africa by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. In Benin and Kenya, children and their carers liked the new varieties and proved willing to eat 400 g per day, enough to give a clear increase in beta-carotene in blood serum.
However, when the new cassavas replaced traditional food grains in people’s diets, their intake of other nutrients, including riboflavin, niacin, iron, zinc and folic acid, all declined, impoverishing the overall diet.
The researchers concluded that yellow cassava could make a good intervention in areas where cassava is already the main food crop, but will not be appropriate where other food crops hold sway and cassava is a minor component of the diet.
Such problems highlight the need to base diversification on an analysis of the whole diet, not just part of it. But this can be difficult to determine. Besides the seasonal and annual variations already noted, plenty of dietary components are likely to escape the net altogether when food surveys are conducted. Snacks, for example, are almost never counted, yet can make up 30% of food intake.
Cash is another complicating factor. When farm income improves, so too can nutrition and health. A study of Bt cotton in India showed that adopters enjoyed higher intakes of both calories and micronutrients, while the skin, eye, breathing and stomach problems associated with pesticide use decreased. But cash availability fluctuates wildly in low-income households, and with it the affordability of different commodities. The Green Revolution led to falling grain prices, liberating some cash for micronutrient-rich foods. But in the wake of recent cereal price spikes, the intake of vitamins is once again sharply down in many countries. Conditional cash transfers, often used to encourage the uptake of nutrition and health interventions, show a fairly strong link with dietary quality but little effect on the quantity of food consumed, while unconditional cash transfers show almost no impact at all. The evidence from microfinance projects is similarly mixed. All in all then, big question marks hang over the challenge of making diet diversification affordable – and keeping it so.
Food safety, water quality, hygiene and sanitation cover a multitude of potential intervention points, but few studies have quantified the returns to investments in these areas. Sanitation is not yet part of the CGIAR mandate – “the missing leg of the stool,” as one participant put it. Meanwhile, diarrhoea remains a major killer.
The empowerment of women has long been hailed as a major route to improved nutrition for women and children, but even this is now challenged. A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute suggests there is a relationship, but the precise nature of the links, as well as the definition of empowerment, remains unclear. “We don’t really know what’s going on in households,” admitted one participant. Another suggested jettisoning the concept of empowerment altogether in favour of the broader and less politically charged idea of gender roles. “Men and women work together and roles are negotiated,” she said.
Amid so much uncertainty, it’s difficult for policy makers to know which levers to pull to maximize impact. Clearly, to identify the right interventions we need to think in a more joined up way about agriculture, nutrition and health. To this end there may be some mileage in co-locating the delivery of interventions from all three sectors in a single government department. Lessons could be learnt from the Integrated Rural Development approaches of the 1970s.
A turning point?
This was a salutary conference, confronting two communities divided in the past by turf wars with the knowledge vacuum for which they share responsibility. It should awaken both of them to the huge potential for impact of a more effective relationship in future, grounded in what are, after all, shared objectives for shared beneficiary groups. Let’s hope that, in that respect, Science Forum 2013 marks a long overdue turning point. It should have been held 42 years ago.
– Simon Chater
Postscript: A Green Ink team attended the conference to assist in synthesizing and writing up its outcomes and in evaluating its effectiveness. Watch this space.
Our Montreal connection
In October Green Ink’s founders Simon and Christel Chater made a long overdue visit to Montreal, where our Canadian science writer Erin O’Connell is based. Here they are outside a French restaurant a few steps from Erin’s apartment (Erin’s the one in the middle). The three went on to visit clients in Montreal, Ottawa and New York.
Production tip: why not try landscape?
This issue of our newsletter features two conventional hard-copy reports that stand out from the crowd. Why? Because they’re in landscape format.
Landscape makes such an attractive alternative to the normal portrait shape that it’s amazing how few people use it. At full A4 size, as in this example from Coventry University, it allows a three-column layout that can incorporate a range of display elements while still looking spacious. Even with smaller page sizes the sense of spaciousness can be retained, as in this report from ICRA, which alternates two- and three-column sections.
So many things work better in landscape: maps can spread across the double page while still allowing text or boxed commentary on either side; headings are more likely to take up just one line; and of course pictures of countryside, with their open spaces and long horizons, come into their own.
The only downside is that hard-copy landscape reports jut out a bit on a shelf. But that’s made up for by the fact that they look better and are easier to read on a computer screen.
Why not try landscape on your next project? Talk to one of our designers for advice: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com