The food diversity in small-scale households is often very limited.
Photo: © Göttingen University/Qaim

Income from cash crops and products improves the quality and diversity of rural diets.

Many of the undernourished people in Africa and Asia are small-scale farmers. Diversifying production on these farms is often perceived as a promising strategy to improve dietary quality. A study revealed that improving small farmers’ access to markets seems to be a more effective strategy to improve nutrition than promoting production diversity.

Undernutrition and micronutrient malnutrition remain problems of significant magnitude in large parts of the developing world. Improved nutrition requires not only better access to food for poor population segments, but also higher dietary quality and diversity. Because many poor and undernourished people are smallholder farmers, diversifying production on these smallholder farms is widely perceived as a useful approach to improve dietary diversity. However, empirical evidence on the link between production diversity and consumption diversity is scarce.
Agro economists from Göttingen University in Germany have studied this link and found that this assumption is not always true. The study findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS) in mid-August.

Dietary diversity is of prime importance in supplying vitamins and trace elements. The number of food groups regularly consumed is, therefore, often used to indicate the nutrition situation of a household. The scientists working with Prof. Dr. Matin Qaim of Göttingen University’s Department of Agroeconomics and Rural Development analysed data from over 8.000 small-scale farmer households from Indonesia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Malawi in order to investigate the relationship between diversified production and dietary diversity.

Regression models used in the study show that on-farm production diversity is positively associated with dietary diversity in some situations, but not in all. When production diversity is already high, the association is not significant or even turns negative because of the foregone income benefits from specialisation, explain the scientists of the study. Analysis of other factors reveals that market access has positive effects on dietary diversity which are larger than those of increased production diversity. Market transactions also tend to reduce the role the farm diversity plays in household nutrition. According to Professor Qaim, these results suggest that increasing on-farm diversity is not always the most effective way to improve dietary diversity in smallholder households and should not be considered a goal in itself.

Excessively diversified production leads to loss of income because farmers cannot use the economic advantages of specialisation“, explains Prof. Qaim. „As small farming families also buy-in food during certain seasons, less income also means there is less money available to buy higher-quality food such as fruit, vegetables and animal products.“
Overall, diversified production has a relatively small impact in dietary diversity and is statistically insignificant in many situations. Particularly in Africa, small farmers in remote areas often cultivate more than ten different crop species. „Our research shows that market access and the sale of agricultural produce as a source of income have far higher positive effects on nutrition than expanding production diversity even more. To improve nutrition, it is necessary to make small farmers fit for the market“, says Kibrom Tadesse Sibhatu, the first author of the study. This means in particular improving the infrastructure of rural areas and providing access to modern production technologies.

More information:
Sibhatu, K.T., Krishna, V.V., Qaim, M. (2015). Production diversity and dietary diversity in smallholder farm households. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA

Link to pnas website: PNAS (open access)


(Göttingen University/pnas/wi)