A woman harvests greens in Kenya
A woman harvests greens in Kenya. | Photo Credit: Katie G. Nelson for RTI International

The Climate-Nutrition Paradox and Unintended Consequences

By Ashley Boddie

The effects of climate change are threatening agricultural systems and access to nutritious food around the world. Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) — an approach that incorporates tools and practices that enable production systems to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change — is unquestionably the way forward as the world strives to feed an ever-growing population amidst the shocks and stresses brought about by climate change. As implementers, we have seen firsthand the challenges in adopting these practices and technologies, particularly for women. But what if — assuming we can overcome the barriers to adoption — we find that building resilience to climate change through CSA can have a negative impact on other food security goals? What if it can harm those already most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change?

That potential outcome was identified while reexamining the Conceptual Pathways between Agriculture and Nutrition as part of an internally funded, independent research project at RTI International, a global research institute and leading international development partner.

The impact of shocks on the agriculture-to-nutrition pathways

The Conceptual Pathways between Agriculture and Nutrition (pictured below as presented in Herforth and Harris, “Understanding and Applying Primary Pathways and Principles”) is a framework that has been used by USAID-funded Feed the Future programs to capitalize on the role agriculture can play in improving nutrition, but there is still much to learn about how to leverage it within developing economies, particularly during shocks like those resulting from climate change.



Graphical description of Conceptual Pathways between Agriculture and Nutrition
Figure 1: Conceptual Pathways between Agriculture and Nutrition.

A team of agriculture, resilience and nutrition experts at RTI set out to develop a Resilient Agriculture-to-Nutrition Pathways Framework to yield insights into how shocks and stresses impact the three agriculture-to-nutrition pathways of food production, agricultural income and women’s empowerment. Looking at the existing framework with a resilience lens, we integrated additional layers into the pathways, revised some directional relationships within them and incorporated relevant resilience capacities (represented in orange in the Resilient Agriculture-to-Nutrition Pathways Framework below). These changes surfaced some surprising observations about the impact of resilience capacities on the steps in the pathways leading to improved nutrition outcomes, particularly related to CSA and women’s empowerment.



Graphical depiction of Resilient Agriculture-to-Nutrition Pathways Framework
Figure 2: Resilient Agriculture-to-Nutrition Pathways Framework.

Women’s empowerment and the climate-nutrition paradox

As we built out the three pathways, we felt it was important to examine the components of women’s empowerment so we could better see the impact of shocks on the corresponding pathway. We incorporated the domains used by the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, drawing from the six indicators from the Abbreviated Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index to avoid overcomplicating the framework and to facilitate modeling with available Feed the Future zone of influence survey data (see “Next steps,” below). These indicators include input into productive decisions, ownership of assets, access to credit, control over use of income, group membership and workload. While it is well-documented that women often don’t have easy access to CSA technologies or face other constraints to implementing CSA practices, our study allowed us to connect the dots of the impacts of these practices to nutrition outcomes. 

We observed that not only do women need to be empowered to apply CSA practices and technologies, doing so could actually have a negative impact on various elements of women’s empowerment in agriculture. For example, many CSA practices increase women’s labor (to illustrate, using crop residues for groundcover may lead women to have to search farther for fuel materials, or applying conservation agriculture methods may lead to increased manual weeding — typically a woman’s job). An increase in women’s workload could then have negative consequences down the women’s empowerment pathway to nutrition, including on women’s energy expenditure, caring capacity and practices, and ultimately on mothers’ and children’s nutrition outcomes. Furthermore, when a household applies certain CSA techniques (such as switching to high-yielding varieties), it can change the household power dynamics and control over the income generated from a certain activity. This negative impact on women’s empowerment can have a downstream effect on household food distribution decisions, which is another element we added to the agriculture-to-nutrition pathways in our review of the framework, as it is critical to nutrition outcomes for women and children during shocks.

The paradox is that CSA is necessary to sustain and improve the food production and agricultural income pathways in the face of shocks and stresses related to climate change, but it can also lead to poor nutrition outcomes through the women’s empowerment pathway. If CSA is not necessarily gender-smart agriculture, then does that mean CSA is not nutrition-smart agriculture? 

Unintended consequences

Despite this paradox, we are not suggesting CSA should be avoided; rather, we are recognizing that — like many interventions — implementers ought to consider the unintended consequences of introducing new practices and technologies like CSA. While building the resilience of agricultural systems to climate change, we need to ensure that marginalized and underrepresented groups are not left more vulnerable to poor nutrition and food insecurity. RTI has developed a methodology and approach to identify potential unintended consequences in partnership with two clients (both large, philanthropic foundations with a focus on agricultural development) and applies the approach in our work — including to inform climate change policy actions. Moving forward, we hope to build a greater evidence base and approach specifically for CSA.

Next steps

After carrying out the “shock tests” and refining the agriculture-to-nutrition pathways framework, our next steps are to test the strength and direction of the relationships between the identified resilience capacities and the elements and outcomes of the revised agriculture-to-nutrition pathways framework. Drawing on Feed the Future zone of influence survey data sets in Bangladesh, Senegal and Uganda, as well as data from two of RTI’s Feed the Future projects in Kenya and Senegal, we are utilizing structural equation modeling to conduct this analysis to learn more about the links between various resilience capacities, like CSA and the downstream effects on nutrition outcomes, to better inform future programming and shed light on how to anticipate and mitigate unintended consequences.

This story was originally posted on agrilinks.org

Strategic Objective
Agriculture, Climate-Resilient Agriculture, Climate, Climate Change, Economic Growth

Ashley Boddie

Senior Food Security and Agriculture Advisor, RTI International.

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