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A Look Back on the Livestock, Animal Source Foods and Household Nutrition Learning Series

This post was originally published on the Land O'Lakes International Development website and was written by Jennie Lane, DVM, MPH. 

As our year-long, TOPS-funded Livestock, Animal Source Foods (ASF) and Household Nutrition Learning Series comes to an end, we at Land O’Lakes International Development have been reflecting on the series and what we’ve learned.

Driven in part from the growing understanding that a small amount of animal source foods added to a mostly cereal based diet vastly improves the nutritional adequacy of such a diet and can improve nutrition outcomes, particularly in young children, this four-part learning series facilitated the identification, discussion and dissemination of best practices and emerging approaches to nutrition-sensitive ASF and market-based livestock programs.

Along with key event cohosts including SPRINGAgrilinks, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the series reached almost 600 individuals from 52 countries. We covered the following topics across two webinars and two in-person events:

  • Measuring the nutritional impact of livestock programs
  • The importance of ASF in diets
  • Food safety issues with ASF
  • Technical considerations when implementing livestock projects
  • Review of the evidence of livestock programs on nutrition outcomes
  • Best practices when designing nutrition-sensitive livestock programming

The four events included:

  1. Livestock and Livelihoods: Measuring and Promoting Nutrient-Rich Value Chain Commodities (Webinar, June 16, 2016)
  2. Livestock Markets, Animal Source Foods and Human Nutrition: Considering Program Tensions, Maximizing Impact and Avoiding Harm (In-person event, October 17, 2016)
  3. Issues and Opportunities: Addressing Food Safety Concerns in Animal Source Foods for Improved Household Nutrition (Webinar, January 25, 2017)
  4. Animal Source Foods for Nutrition Impact: Evidence and Good Practices for Informed Project Design (In-person event, May 4, 2017)

These events and ensuing conversations have brought our industry a step closer to understanding the diverse roles livestock and ASF can play in improving household nutrition and overall wellbeing. They have also highlighted available resources to turn to and essential questions to consider when designing, implementing and monitoring livestock programs intended to improve household nutrition.    

Interest in This Topic Exceeded Our Expectations
Despite focus on a niche topic within nutrition and agriculture, members of the research and international development communities were highly engaged at each event. Though each event allocated significant time for questions and discussion, it never seemed to be enough. It became clear to us that the demand is high for continued discussion around nutrition, agriculture, livestock and ASF.

This high interest is appropriate and promising as global demand for ASF is increasing, particularly in low and middle income countries (LMIC). The livestock sector contributes an average of 40 percent to agriculture’s gross domestic product in LMIC, however, this sector receives less than one percent of all official development assistance disbursements. Additionally, ASF are rich sources of highly bioavailable micronutrients shown to improve cognitive development in children. Recent evidence shows that young children fed eggs during complementary feeding have better nutrition outcomes, as presented by Dr. Lora Iannotti at the October workshop. As a livestock and nutrition community, we need to continue momentum around the importance of animal source foods to reducing malnutrition in women and children and frame them as imperative for building “grey matter infrastructure,” while also harnessing opportunities for poverty reduction and inclusive development, particularly for women and youth.    

Additional Guidance on Measuring Impact is Needed
Event discussions were loud and clear: our industry needs more specific and sensitive indicators to measure the impact of nutrition-sensitive livestock programs. The good news is, we aren’t starting from scratch. Our series kicked off with a webinar on using the USAID Feed the Future Nutrient Rich Value Chain Commodity Indicator. And the Food and Agriculture Organization recently released a Toolkit on Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture and Food Systems, which includes a Compendium of Indicators for Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture. These provide a helpful place to start; however, guidance on using disaggregated indicators specific for livestock interventions is still needed. 

We also need to better understand impact evaluation of nutrition-sensitive agricultural projects. How do we do projects and impact evaluations well? And, why are these projects important? Implicit in this need is an appreciation of the complications of running rigorous research projects in tandem with development interventions. Despite the complexities of such research, there is a need for more evidence to guide program development and implementation in the future. A great resource to start learning more about this topic is available in the book chapter “Evaluation of Nutrition-Sensitive Programs,” by Deanna Olney, Jef Leroy and Marie Ruel. Dr. Jef Leroy presented some of his experience with impact evaluation at the October workshop, and Dr. Robyn Alders shared her experience of running a randomized control trial of a nutrition-sensitive livestock project in Tanzania at the May workshop. Read more about Dr. Alder’s presentation in this blog from ILRI.
Tensions Exist Between the Direct and Indirect Pathways of Agriculture to Nutrition
A great tension remains between supporting vulnerable households, smallholder farmers and pastoralists in their production and consumption of animal source foods (direct pathway) versus leveraging market system approaches for increasing the availability of affordable animal source foods for poor households (indirect pathway). SPRING explored this same convergence and tension in nutrition-sensitive market development activities in a webinar last year. 
In reality, there is no one perfect solution. Local governments, donors and implementers need improved understanding of local, regional and global food systems. Then, we must better learn how to integrate livestock programs within these systems to effect change while sustainably and ethically increasing the availability of affordable ASF. It is critical to get this right while keeping up with the global increase in demand for livestock products. As Dr. Shirley Tarawali explained during her presentation in October, there are opportunities to transform smallholder livestock systems while realizing benefits like improved nutrition, women’s empowerment and opportunities for youth employment. 

Food Safety and ASF Go Hand-in-Hand
It is estimated that the global burden of foodborne illness matches that of illness from the major infectious diseases, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, combined. The most frequent cause of foodborne illness are diarrheal disease agents, and children under five years of age disproportionately bear the burden of food borne illness. ASF are one of the primary sources of food borne illnesses.
ASF and food safety are intimately related, and more attention needs to be paid in this space. However, merely increasing regulations does not translate to improvements in food safety; growth in supermarket culture in LMIC also does not translate into improved food safety. As Dr. Delia Grace explained in October, interim solutions are necessary to bridge the food safety gap between informal and formal markets in LMIC. At the Agrilinks webinar in January, ILRI researchers Dr. Hung Nugyen and Dr. Silvia Alonso presented opportunities to improve food safety in formal and informal markets and ways to incentivize producers to produce and consumers to demand safer foods. USAID will continue to explore this subject in an upcoming AgExchange online discussion.   

Behavior Change Communications Resources are Needed 
Our industry needs improved understanding of how livestock can impact nutrition outcomes (both positively and negatively). Subsequently, there is a need for comprehensive and contextual behavior change communication strategies that can connect the dots between livestock production and improved household nutrition.
Multipronged approaches to behavior change communication are necessary to realizing lasting behavior change at the household and community level. In the Agrilinks-hosted Food Safety webinar, Land O’Lakes International Development Chief of Party Dennis Karamuzi shared a successful example of this from the USAID-funded Rwanda Dairy Competitiveness Program II (RDCPII). RDCPII worked with Urunana Development Communications Limited, a local radio producer, to increase understanding of and demand for quality milk consumption in Rwanda. We can also find lessons from the private sector in this space; Hystra and Gain’s webinar series on “Marketing Nutrition for the Base of the Pyramid” have case examples relevant to the livestock and ASF sector.

Insects Are the Buzz When it Comes to ASF 
Insects were not a focus of this learning series; however during a session at our Nairobi event, we asked participants to identify little known or underappreciated foods. The clear winner was insects! Seasonal consumption of insects (entomophagy) provides a significant and inexpensive source of quality protein and contributes to food security for many vulnerable populations around the world. Insects as an environmentally friendly protein source are currently popular in the developed world, evidenced by the emergence of several brands of cricket flour bars; however this source of protein has been known in indigenous communities for millennia and deserves a deeper look as a human food as well as livestock feed. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has this report on entomophagy. 

Sustain the Moooo-mentum 
The livestock and nutrition sectors are critical to engaging in the world’s collective effort to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Livestock Animal Source Foods and Household Nutrition Learning Series contributed to the global conversation on the importance of safe and affordable ASF to improve nutrition outcomes of the world’s most vulnerable populations and highlighted critical points that the development community should prioritize moving forward. We are grateful to the TOPS program and USAID for their support of our learning series, and we “egg-erly” look forward to seeing what our livestock and nutrition community can accomplish in the future.