Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

How Can Improving Farmer Safety Help Improve Nutrition?

This post was written by Carrie Melgarejo, Nutrition Advisor* and Jennifer Pietropaoli, Knowledge Management Officer at SPRING/Manoff Group.

Agriculture projects are increasingly tasked with reducing malnutrition, not just reducing hunger and increasing incomes. One way to achieve this goal is by reducing occupational risks on the farm that also have ties to nutrition outcomes. Although agriculture programs are getting better at considering the impact of agriculture on nutrition, the linkages often remain tied to the crops themselves, like diversifying production and improving quality assurance throughout the value chain. But nutrition can also be influenced by the impact of farming practices on the producer.

These hazards can come from many of the same pathogens (microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, worms, viruses and prions) and toxins (by-products of microorganisms) that make food unfit for consumers at the end of the agriculture value chain. When they affect farmers, especially those who are pregnant or lactating women, they can have important impacts on nutrition status as well.

While not all-inclusive, nutrition can be affected by the following farm-related situations:

  • Chickens are kept in a family’s living quarters, where they compromise the sanitation of the environment. This is especially problematic for young children who are still crawling and can develop environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) if caregivers do not regularly wash their own hands and the baby. EED can cause many health problems, including anemia and diarrhea.
  • A woman helps a goat with a difficult delivery and gets contaminated by the bacteria that causes brucellosis. A pregnant mother later buys and drinks the same goat’s unpasteurized milk or eats the undercooked meat and is also infected with brucellosis. Brucellosis can lead to anemia for both of these women (or for children if germs in the first scenario spread). This is one of many zoonotic diseases that pass from animals to farmers during milking, slaughtering or handling waste.
  • A woman cares for animals and crops that use standing water, exposing her to parasites that can infect her with schistosomiasis or malaria, exacerbating or causing anemia. If she is pregnant, this can affect the nutrition and growth of her unborn child.
  • Coffee, sugarcane, and tea are three crops that provide or are grown in the shade. When farmers work in these fields — or in any soil that holds moisture — they are exposed to parasites like flukes and roundworms, both of which can cause anemia and otherwise contribute to decreased nutrient absorption, depending on the severity of the infection.
  • Farmers work in a field without access to sanitary facilities, leading them to defecate in the open, a practice that can turn humans into vectors for the spread of hookworm, a helminth that can lead to anemia.
  • Soil and improperly treated manure for fertilizer gets consumed by grazing livestock, carried to homes and markets on a farmer’s shoes or animal’s hooves, swept up in water runoff, and deposited through defecation near water sources. Each of these sources can carry parasites that cross into the food chain or into household food handling without use of good handwashing and hygiene practices.

Regardless of how pathogens are transmitted, each of these scenarios present risks that can impact the immune system and lead to stunting, anemia and other health and nutrition challenges that contribute to loss of productivity and income. Thankfully, there are a number of actions that programs can promote to help reduce farmer safety risks and also improve nutrition.

How Agriculture Programs Can Reduce Farmer Risk and Improve Nutrition

Providing farmers with the knowledge and tools for good agriculture practices and good market practices can dramatically improve conditions on the farm, reducing the risk of contamination, diseases or infections that can contribute to malnutrition.

Some of these practices include:

  • Washing hands after:
  1. Coming in from the field
  2. Before and after handling animals and animal products 
  3. Before cooking or eating food or feeding a child. Washing feet and shaking off clothes after working in fields or with animals is also important.
  • Properly processing manure and human feces if using as fertilizer
  • Using latrines or designated areas for defecation away from fields
  • Reducing pools of standing water and avoiding or reducing time standing near them
  • Keeping farm animals away from living quarters
  • Properly separating and treating drinking water and irrigation water and avoiding standing in irrigation water where possible
  • Safe storage and handling practices for feed and crops after harvest, during transport and at the market
  • Treating raw milk products
  • Not selling or consuming unsafe crops

For any of these practices, projects should always start by asking questions that seek to understand where and how farmers encounter these risks and by creating practical solutions that mitigate health risks.

These actions can contribute to a healthier environment and help reduce malnutrition, but improving only one of these behaviors is not enough. Moving the nutrition needle requires a multi-sectoral approach. Good agriculture practices are a start, but when agriculture programs are also explicit about which agriculture practices can benefit from a nutrition lens, they can increase progress toward their nutrition mandates and encourage a cycle of better health that further improves families’ ability to produce, sell and self-sustain.

Wondering how you can incorporate nutrition-sensitive practices into agriculture programs? SPRING has developed an e-learning module to help practitioners gain the nutrition-sensitive knowledge and skills that can take their program’s potential for nutrition to the next level.

*Prior to publication of this blog, Carrie transitioned to the MQ-SUN Project.