Can agroforestry lead to better diets: let’s ask the consumer?

Outskirts of Lima_Jason Donovan

Houses on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Photo: Jason Donovan

“We need solid evidence of how agroforestry can help create diversity in the diets of growing urban areas (such as Lima in Peru) to counteract the argument that it would be better to import relatively cheap fruit and vegetables from neighbouring countries.”

New consumer-focused research is forcing scientists such as Jason Donovan, a marketing specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre, to change course in assessing the role of agroforestry produce and markets.

“Traditionally the CGIAR has carried out its research starting from the supply side – the smallholder farmer – with less attention being paid to actors further down the value chain,” explains Donovan. “Consumers have generally been given limited attention, but now we’re taking a whole new approach by looking at what people living on the outskirts of Lima are really eating and what they want to eat.”

The research is part of a project initiated by the International Food Policy Research Institute to look at value chains in connection with nutrition. The World Agroforestry Centre, along with several other CGIAR Centres, has been given ‘seed funding’ for research projects relating to how nutrition goals can be achieved through the private sector.

While the majority of projects under this initiative are researching malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, the World Agroforestry Centre is investigating over-nutrition with urban consumers as the central focus.

“Once we better understand the needs and interests of consumers, the challenge will be to develop a plan that supports value chains which supply urban markets with fresh fruits and vegetables.” Donovan outlines how this research will be relevant for other countries with rapid urbanization, low fruit and vegetable consumption, and increasingly overweight and obese communities.

Latin America is now the most overweight region in the developing world, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The Peruvian Society of Endocrinology estimates that more than 40 per cent of the adult population of Peru is overweight or obese. Excess weight and obesity cause 44 per cent of cases of diabetes in Peru, 23 per cent of heart disease, and more than 7 per cent of cancers.

Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption could help to counteract this obesity epidemic which is largely due to sedentary lifestyles and consumption of foods rich in fat, salt and sugars but poor in vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients.

“Fruit and vegetables are very important in addressing chronic diseases, heart diseases, cancer, diabetes and obesity” says Donovan. “A diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides people with most of the micronutrients they need as well as dietary fiber and a host of essential non-nutrient substances.”

The World Agroforestry Centre is working with Peru’s Instituto de Investigación Nutricional (IIN) – a recognized leader in nutritional studies in the region – to survey 300 households in peri-urban Lima to analyse consumption patterns and determine how important fruit and vegetables are to the diets of this predominantly middle-income community. Surveys results are just in, and the team is currently working to assess them.

Donovan says he and colleagues are benefitting from IIN’s expertise in comprehensive nutritional survey techniques and the project is providing useful insights into how nutritionists and economists can work together.

The next stage of the research will focus on collecting qualitative data from 60 selected households to answer the ‘why’ questions, such as: What fruits do people like and not like? What would they like to consume more of if it was available? Why does fruit and vegetable consumption vary within households? Why is it that kids seem to eat more fruit and vegetables?

Understanding current consumption of fruit and vegetables and peoples’ preferences will be vital to designing future campaigns aimed at healthy eating.

While it’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions, the results of this study confirm that on average, households on the outskirts of Lima consumer very low quantities of fruits and vegetables.

Interestingly it seems there is considerable variation between and among households, with consumption of fruits and vegetables prioritized for children. Future work in this area could have important implications for the direction in which agroforestry research takes in years to come.

Donovan hopes the research will lead to more investigation into how urban consumption patterns relate to smallholder farmer and the role of markets in the sale and promotion of healthy food. There is also scope for investigating ways the private sector can help improve nutrition, such as through changing the way certain foods are processed.

He is also keen to see fruit and vegetables feature more prominently in the CGIAR’s research on nutrition and value chains, which tends to focus on meat, tubers and grains.

The other new and interesting aspect to this research is that it is looking at urban populations and their needs and demands for nutritious foods.

Currently more than half of all people in the world live in urban areas. By 2050, this is expected to increase to 7 out of every 10 people. Much of the urban population growth in coming years is expected to occur in cities of developing countries. Lima’s population, which has quadrupled since 1960 to more than 6 million, is currently growing a rate of 2 per cent year.

A growth in urban population and consequent reduction in rural populations will surely have significant ramifications for the way in which food production occurs in the future, including agroforestry.

“Of course, we’re hoping that agroforestry does play a major role in improving the diets of consumers and that people want to eat agroforestry produce,” says Donovan optimistically. “If this turns out to be the case, we will have a powerful demand-led justification for our research and for motivating the private sector to get behind agroforestry.”'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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