For some time now, the food security movement has been stating that improving the agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers improves nutritional status. Last week’s G-8 Foreign Ministers Meeting Chair’s statement (here) reinforces this idea:

Donor and partner government investments in agricultural development have proven to be one of the most effective means to promote broad-based economic growth, especially when they are nutrition-sensitive and target smallholder farmers and women … The Ministers agreed that the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement merits wider participation as a country-led network involving 27 countries coordinating and aligning donors, the private sector and key stakeholders, including small farmers, to address under-nutrition and scale up proven, multi-sectoral interventions.

Are investments in agricultural development directed to small farmers “proven” to improve nutritional status? I don’t think so.

IFPRI’s Millions fed: proven successes in agricultural development – a book that reviews agricultural productivity investments and their effects – is not able to identify even one case of an agricultural productivity project that had a nutrition impact. There is a single case that describes how a smallholder farming project in Bangladesh improved diet diversity and food consumption, but there was no reported impact on nutritional status, not even reduced Vitamin A deficiency which was the motivation for the project.

A DFID-funded systematic review of agricultural interventions that aim to improve nutritional status of children by Masset et al (2011) found –after reviewing 7,000 studies of which only 23 met criteria for establishing a credible counterfactual-- “no evidence of impact on the absorption of iron and some evidence of impact on absorption of vitamin A” and “no evidence of impact on prevalence rates of childhood stunting, wasting or underweight among children under five.” Further, the authors found little evidence of the nutrition impact of bio-fortification interventions.

Finally, the evidence on smallholder farming and incomes is also pretty weak (see Justin Sandefur’s blog here for a discussion of these issues in Tanzania).

What is the G-8 talking about?