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Pinstrup-Andersen on African hunger at U.N.: Break down barriers, develop new incentives

To improve human health and nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, barriers that exist between the food and health systems need to be broken down, said Per Pinstrup-Andersen speaking at the United Nations Nov. 12, and new incentives must be established to encourage multidisciplinary work.

Academics and policymakers working within the food system and human health and nutrition sectors exist in self-contained "silos" that lack collaboration across disciplines, Pinstrup-Andersen said in an interview prior to his U.N. talk, which focused on the themes of the new book, "The African Food System and Its Interaction with Human Health and Nutrition" (Cornell University Press, 2010), edited by Pinstrup-Andersen.

"We need to remove the barriers that exist in the research and policymaking communities, barriers to reaching outside their own disciplines or ministries," said Pinstrup-Andersen, a 2001 World Food Prize laureate and the H.E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy, a J. Thomas Clark Professor of Entrepreneurship and professor of applied economics at Cornell.

Book launch
Per Pinstrup-Andersen's book, "The African Food System and Its Interaction with Human Health and Nutrition" (Cornell University Press, 2010), will be launched on campus Nov. 23, 4:30-6 p.m. in G10 Biotechnology Building.

In academia, for example, prominent journals rarely publish findings from multidisciplinary research projects, "so the incentive is to stay within your discipline rather than looking at the world outside of your field," Pinstrup-Andersen said. Deans, department heads and journals can shift incentives by recognizing and promoting cross-disciplinary projects, he added.

A model program is the Food Systems and Poverty Reduction Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training program, administered by the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development and funded by the National Science Foundation, he said, which trains a cadre of graduate students to use interdisciplinary approaches to tackle food systems and agricultural problems that contribute to extreme poverty.

Similarly, to create new incentives for policymakers, "the message we need to send … is that the health problems they are trying to solve are multifaceted, requiring multifaceted solutions" involving many ministries working together, Pinstup-Andersen said. For example, inadequate micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A affect more people than calorie deficiency. Half of pregnant women and children in Africa don't get enough iron. Policymakers must cross health, nutrition and agricultural boundaries to promote such solutions as more diversified cropping systems on small farms or rice fortified with vitamin A and iron.

"I have argued that the food system begins and ends with human health," he said. The majority of poor Africans work in the food system, "so by improving the health and nutrition of people, you are improving the productivity of the food system."

More than half of the human health problems in Africa originate in the food system, primarily through such animal diseases as avian flu and HIV/AIDS that jumped to humans, Pinstup-Andersen said. A "vicious circle" occurs with HIV/AIDS -- as people's health suffers, their productivity declines, they earn less, their children die or grow up malnourished and unhealthy, and when the children grow to adulthood, they too suffer and earn less.

"By focusing research and policymaking on these links, we are much more likely to arrive at effective solutions to our health problems while supporting the food system," he said.

The book features a series of papers that mostly originated from a 2007 Cornell/United Nations University symposium on the African food system, health and nutrition.

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John Carberry